The lineups remained the same for the Indiana Pacers as they continued to play short-handed without Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, but unlike their win over Chicago, the Pacers allowed those injuries to become a determining factor in tonight’s game against the Charlotte Hornets.
The play down the stretch, highlighted by a staggering free throw differential and game-deciding whistles, overshadowed Indiana’s lack of ability to close out the Hornets despite having multiple opportunities to do so. The Pacers were up by double figures in each of the first three quarters, leading by 17, 19, and 14 at different points in the game, including a 14-point advantage heading into the fourth.
However, Charlotte showcased some excellent resiliency in climbing back into the game each time Indiana had an opportunity to stomp out the Hornets entirely. That came back to sting them when Charlotte outscored the Pacers 24-4 to start the fourth quarter, setting up a flurry of a finish to regulation, getting big time buckets from Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. Warren, eventually forcing overtime on a Brogdon layup with 16.8 seconds remaining.
In the extra period, the Pacers again had opportunities to close the game out, but missed back-to-back threes up 117-115, then allowed Devonte’ Graham’s career night to feature a crucial and-one with under two minutes to regain the lead for Charlotte. Warren would split a trip at the line, Graham would hit both of his. Jeremy Lamb somehow tied it up on a broken possession. Graham would again go back to the free throw line, icing the game on a rough, rough call on JaKarr Sampson, one the league will almost assuredly respond to with, “Our bad.”
All told, the Hornets outshot the Pacers 42-7 from the free throw line, a disparity that Indiana weathered early, but were unable to overcome when the Hornets stormed out of the gate in the fourth quarter. James Borrego’s decision to insert Bismack Biyombo to start the fourth paid massive dividends, as Biyombo not only scored 15 points, but helped to foul out both Goga Bitadze and T.J. Leaf, forcing Indiana to play the 6’7” Sampson at center in overtime.
That particular result was predictable. Leaf’s lack of overall skill defensively combined with Bitadze being a rookie spelled trouble for Indiana’s big depth, helping to define the 34-17 foul differential. Most of the calls weren’t bad, though a crucial offensive foul on Bitadze on a pick was, but Indiana was never able to play in the same realm as Charlotte in terms of drawing fouls (despite scoring 58 points in the paint), especially once free throws became a factor.
The second unit in particular was a mitigated disaster for the Pacers. After Indiana’s quick start and 19-point lead, the defense disappeared completely, allowing the Hornets to run layup drills with almost no resistance. While Aaron Holiday hit a pair of threes, dished to Justin Holiday for a three of his own, Doug McDermott was the leading scorer with eight. Leaf was scoreless, and T.J. McConnell had three turnovers to zero assists.
That is impossible to win with, especially with Graham’s career game, Biyombo’s fourth quarter dominance, and Cody Martin, who showed that not all zero point games are bad, pulling in 11 rebounds and covering Brogdon like a glove in the fourth quarter to limit his touches on offense.
Limiting Brogdon offensively late proved a big advantage for Charlotte. Not only was Brogdon the lone go-to for the Pacers in free throw shooting (5-5) in regulation, but he was effectively unstoppable when he did have the ball. He would finish with 31 points and eight assists, ripping apart the Hornets defense at will, but Martin’s ability to prevent Brogdon from getting the ball, along with double teams, kept it at “just” 31.
That the Pacers were almost able to overcome everything that went against them was a testament not only to Brogdon, but to Warren as well. Warren was a massive boost offensively all night, scoring 33 points on a dizzying 15-18 shooting and brought in some big defensive plays with two steals and a block. Lamb meanwhile wasn’t nearly as efficient, but scored well with 18 points.
Beyond that? Well, no one else reached double figures to help support Indiana’s top three scorers. Sampson provided some nice energy, including the game’s most emphatic block, but is a backup being thrust into a starting position. Bitadze, with another four block night to go with his 11 rebounds, is also being forced well beyond his current role due to injuries despite the positive flashes he continues to show.
Losing in overtime on the first night of a back-to-back while already playing short-handed feels like the worst possible outcome for the Pacers, short of another name getting added to the injury list. Without knowing whether front court relief will come as soon as tomorrow, the Pacers will have to dig deep to avoid falling two games under .500 when they host the Washington Wizards tomorrow night.