Frank Vogel was hot about the defense of the Indiana Pacers after their latest fourth quarter collapse, stating bluntly, "When we start deciding to defend, we'll start to win again." The want to of the Pacers defensively wasn't on display against the Denver Nuggets, who coaxed the Pacers into an ABA flashback, with the Nuggets coming out on top 129-126.
The Pacers led, as they always do, late, but crucial lapses defensively set up Randy Foye for a game leading three pointer with 20 seconds left, leaving Indiana to scramble to make up those points, falling on missed three pointers and missed free throws in a final quarter that saw Denver hitting six three pointers and scoring 45 points. The Pacers shot over 60% for much of the night, finishing at 58.5%, but allowed Denver to shoot over 50% themselves.
Indiana was crushed on the offensive glass, allowing 17 offensive rebounds to Denver, which led to a staggering 21 second chance points. Denver also had six and one opportunities, with damage limited due to a free throw form by Emmanuel Mudiay being nearly as bad as the Pacers late in games. For Indiana, Monta Ellis had a big game early, finishing with 24 points on 10-17 shooting, but missed three crucial free throws late, allowing Denver to capitalize.
Paul George had a solid, albeit quiet game most of the night, getting a pair of trips to the line, but couldn't hit closing shots to salvage Indiana's latest collapse, finishing with 19 points. Without Ian Mahinmi and George Hill in addition to Rodney Stuckey, the Pacers got some nice play early from Glenn Robinson III, but struggles as the game progressed forced him to the bench.
Solomon Hill gave the best spot minutes of the night, bringing a defensive effort unlike anything any other Pacers player had seen all night, forcing stops, coming up with rebounds, and actually hitting a pair of three pointers to help Indiana salvage an early second half collapse and set them up with a favorable position heading into the fourth quarter.
The bright spots, if there were any, came from both of Indiana's rookies, who each had breakout games ultimately marred by the team's inability to close out wins. Joe Young was in full Joey Buckets mode, scoring 15 points on 7-11 shooting and dishing out seven assists, but struggled against Mudiay defensively. Myles Turner led all scorers with 25 points on 11-13 shooting, showing his potential and more. The pair scored 22 straight Pacers points at a point.
More pressing is how to fix whatever is happening to the Pacers late in games. Everyone seems aware of it, yet it keeps happy over and over again. This marks the sixth loss in the last month where Indiana has led in the final two minutes of regulation. That includes a 106-104 lead vs. Sacramento, an 89-84 lead at Chicago, a 91-88 lead at Miami, a 93-88 lead at Houston, and a 94-91 lead at Boston before tonight's 123-121 blown lead.
At the halfway point Indiana drops to 22-19, losers of three straight and four of five, starting off their current road trip much as they started their last one, and falling to 9-13 on the season away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse. This sets up another meeting against the Phoenix Suns in hopes of grabbing a much needed win against a fading opponent, but Indiana's latest meltdown shows how far Indiana is from taking any team for granted.