Prior to the game against Sacramento, I had mentioned to Tom I felt really good about where the team was. Five wins in their last seven, a workable playoff lead with dwindling games left to be played, and a largely favorable schedule, it all seemed to add up. Tom was a little more level-headed in his reply, noting that he was still day-to-day. It certainly seemed like a great stance to take with the team following last night’s loss, but I wasn’t aware I’d need to further downgrade my expectations to "quarter-to-quarter," but an utterly confusing and overwhelmingly infuriating showing against the Detroit Pistons leaves few other options.
The Pistons have played the Pacers well all season, so a tight game, or even a loss shouldn’t be out of the question, but this one stung. It hurt because it felt for a while like Butler’s earlier win had resonated with the team. They came out firing and hitting, a complete 180 compared to the nightmare against the Kings. But aside from building a 9-point first quarter lead, the Pistons weren’t going to make it easy. But even though Detroit continued to get everything they wanted offensively following their slow start, it didn’t ever feel like the Pacers couldn’t weather it and keep moving forward.
That is until Richard Hamilton drilled a running, half-court buzzer-beater three at the end of the first quarter to give Detroit a lead. That should’ve been a sign, but even still, the Pacers continued to fight and move well on offense, so well in fact, that late into the second quarter, the Pacers had assisted on 14 of their 17 field goals; only failing to assist on shots that were put backs. Indiana may not have gotten the stops they wanted when they needed them as Indiana held a slim second quarter lead, but it was looking positive, especially as Brandon Rush was scorching and the ball movement and offense was silky smooth.
Then, another strong close to close the quarter gave the Pistons a 6-0 run and the lead back at the end of the half. Though it wasn’t entirely clear at the time, the momentum had completely shifted. Detroit came out of the half scoring the first five points, and forced the Pacers into four turnovers in their first four possessions. Even still, Indiana remained resilient, closing six point Piston lead and tying it up. From there, a combination of turnovers, poor free throw shooting, lack of ball movement, bad shots, Tayshaun Prince, and Hamilton fueled a 19-2 run that put the Pacers down 18 points. Just like that, not-so-hot turned into nightmare.
Rush and Josh McRoberts responded in cutting the lead down to 7, but Charlie Villanueva put on his best Rush impression, scoring 13 points on 5-5 shooting in the fourth quarter rendering every single shot the Pacers would make moot on the other end. As the fourth quarter wore on, the Pacers started to get chances at the free throw line, which they completely squandered; finishing a deplorable 7-19 from the charity stripe.
The Pacers couldn’t capitalize on their advantages and fell 100-88 in a game they needed to win as Charlotte beat New York, drawing them back into the playoff picture. The Pacers shot far better tonight at 47%, but allowed Detroit to shoot 51% as they got a lot of easy buckets in transition off of Pacers turnovers. Indiana shot 50% from deep, including a 4-6 night from Rush, but allowed the Pistons to shoot 57%, including three fourth quarter threes from Villanueva.
Picking a worst attribute in tonight’s loss would require a March Madness type of bracket. Were the turnovers worse than the team’s interior and transition defense? What about the rattled efforts of A.J. Price vs. him playing most of the second half as Darren Collison sat? The overall number one seed would be free throws, so we know that much, but it’s a difficult loss to put into words because so much of this result just seemed unnecessary.
After the jump, squandering vs. opponent opportunities:
- Player of the game was Brandon Rush and it wasn’t even really close. Rush came out on fire, hitting his first five shots, three of which were threes, the other two a shoe from being threes. Rush ended the night with 19 points, his first half defense was acceptable, and when the Pacers fell behind 18, he was the only player who seemed to make any concerted effort to not only score points, but get his teammates involved. Wait, Brandon Rush?
- Josh McRoberts also had a solid night, skying for some dunks, getting some blocks, finishing up with 8 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. He did contribute to the free throw woes by missing both of his attempts. Tyler Hansbrough had a quiet 7-12 shooting, but his impact felt minimized despite the effort he was putting forth.
- Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert may have been two of the biggest contributors to the disaster, each getting caught up in some lazy and poor offensive decisions, resulting in 8 of the 18 turnovers. Not that anyone was clean, as every Pacer to take the floor managed to donate a turnover for the cause.
- The PG position was the biggest question mark tonight. Darren Collison had a bit of an off night shooting, but managed to move the ball around well, pushing the offense in a positive manner in the first half, but was curiously sat in the second half for A.J. Price. Price has struggled shooting, especially of late, but he clearly didn’t seem to have his head in the game. Whether it was his alma mater’s tournament chances or something else entirely, he didn’t seem to have it as he went to the free throw line late and bricked three of his four attempts as Collison sat on the bench for the entire fourth quarter.
It’s oddly perplexing, this team, and while I understand youth and inconsistency are supposed to go hand in hand, at some point, it should start adding up to consistency. It feels for each brick this team lay, they end up losing track of it and are back at square one. Scoreboard watching saw Charlotte defeat the Knicks, but Chicago surge to defeat the Bucks late. The Pacers remain two games (w/ Charlotte tiebreaker) clear of both teams. Charlotte and Milwaukee play each other Monday, so something has to give there, while the Pacers get the pleasure of hosting the Celtics.
The good news in all of this is that the Pacers, despite their recent 5-2 stretch, have been actively giving the eighth playoff spot away for the past month, but no one wants it. So despite the ugliness of it, it’s still the likeliest scenario that Indiana will keep hold on it, assuming they can accidentally stumble upon a win here and there, since they’re clearly not sure what it takes to win for real. Also, there are no more back-to-backs on the Pacers schedule. That might help as well given the late struggles in the second half of these games.
We'll see where this team is come Monday, but it doesn't feel like it's "day-to-day."