The roller coaster ride that is the 2014-15 Indiana Pacers came to an end. For the first time since 2010, Indiana won't be competing in the NBA Playoffs having lost to the Memphis Grizzlies 95-83 while the Brooklyn Nets pulled away late in a win over Orlando. By virtue of tiebreakers, the 38-44 Nets will make the postseason while the 38-44 Pacers will be hoping the "pop" Paul George felt in his left leg is simply the calf strain it was diagnosed as.
Things fell towards a must-win scenario for Indiana after the Nets topped Orlando by 13, but a win by New Orleans over San Antonio opened the door for Memphis to take control of home court advantage in their first round series against Portland. While Indiana played well early, the theme of the night (Marc Gasol and poor closes to quarters) turned a 23-15 lead to a 24-22 lead at the end of one.
The Pacers led 31-28 early in the second, but five turnovers and four misses in the following stretch ultimately decided the game, with Memphis taking advantage and running off a 14-0 run that moved Memphis up double figures. Indiana could barely play within 10 points the rest of the night, leading to the Memphis win. Indiana pushed the lead to within seven twice in the second half, but each were met with resistance from the Grizzlies.
The key difference even when Indiana was playing well was the play of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, who manhandled Indiana's bigs inside the paint, outside the paint, and pretty much everywhere in between. Gasol scored 33 points alone as he and Randolph combined for 51 points and 22 rebounds, while Indiana's combination of David West and Roy Hibbert had 11 points and eight rebounds total.
It was a night where fatigue from Indiana's double overtime was greatly overshadowed by key players for Indiana just playing plain bad. Hibbert looked engaged early, but disappeared after Frank Vogel inserted Ian Mahinmi, and an early ankle sprain from West set up a horrible night on both ends of the floor from him. The two helped in allowing Gasol to shoot 13-19 from the floor; most shocking in discovering Gasol missed six shots somehow.
The Pacers were smacked around on the boards, allowing 16 offensive rebounds and getting outboarded by 12. Memphis also had a +10 advantage at the free throw line and scoring 48 points in the paint. For a game that struggled to reach 90, Indiana had no ability to get key stops on the night either, all culminating in the lopsided loss.
The swing in the game came in the second quarter, with the 14-0 run leading Memphis to a decisive 32-17 victory in the quarter, with the Grizzlies tearing up Indiana's pitiful bench play in the process. Ian Mahinmi had six points, but had four fouls. Luis Scola struggled to find consistency against Memphis's bigs, and Rodney Stuckey was one of just three Pacers in double figures, but need 13 shots to reach 11 points.
Add in invisible showings from Donald Sloan and Lavoy Allen to go along with Paul George's worst night of the season, and it's really no surprise Indiana wasn't able to keep pace on a night they needed their bench to be great to overcome the front court's poor play. Of course, the biggest thing to take from the game was a fourth quarter injury to George. George needed help coming off the court after he heard a pop in his left leg, which turned out to be a left calf strain.
The end of the season gives George plenty of rehab opportunity, but the overcompensation of George's play on his left leg did no favors towards the injury. Assuming the best for the calf, however, the return of George was exactly what Indiana was looking for; the chance to see Paul gain confidence and the chance for Paul to move past his injury heading into the offseason.
Dwelling on the negative is unfortunate given the load bearing play of both C.J. Miles and George Hill, who like Gasol and Randolph, scored over half of Indiana's points. Miles was great early, but cooled off late, scoring 26 points in the process with five three pointers. In the game, Miles set the franchise record for most consecutive games with four or more three pointers with four.
Hill was also fantastic, scoring 20 points on 9-16 shooting, but like last night against Washington, struggled with turnovers in trying to force plays that weren't there. For the ups and downs of Indiana's season, Hill was without question Indiana's best and most improved player. With health willing for 2015-16, seeing this level Hill is a real bright spot alongside a Paul George closer to 100% than 60%.
From the outset, a playoff berth was expected to be a long shot, making this season something of a success, assuming it's possible to ignore they simply did exactly what Jim O'Brien's teams did over his tenure; finish 9th, lose draft position late, and pick in the 11-13 range. Indiana ended the year tied with Utah, and will see a coin flip decide whether the Pacers will have 11th or 12th pick in the Draft Lottery.
The difficulties piled on Indiana starting in August will create many crossed fingers for the NBA Draft Lottery, but simply winning the coin toss will likely suffice. Whatever happens between now and the draft, however, Indiana will be looking at potential wholesale changes to their roster before next season tips off, though player options from both Hibbert and West could change a lot of things as the summer starts six weeks earlier than they're used to.