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The Pacers can’t stop running the same play in crunch-time

And they just keep messing it up.

Indiana Pacers v Detroit Pistons Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Down three with 10.2 seconds to play in the first of two preseason games in India, Nate McMillan pulled a set from his Rolodex to get T.J. Warren open flying to the left corner for three. Crisply executed with coordinated distractions swirling every which way, the walking bucket knocked down the high-arching triple in the clutch to eventually force overtime, where the Pacers went on to win, 132-131.

Since then, without Victor Oladipo available to bail them out with his absurd 63.2 percent conversion rate in the final five minutes of games decided by five points or less, every time they’ve found themselves in need of a big, late-game basket it’s seemed as though they’ve gone with an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach. Except, it has broken (more than once!), and unfortunately, none of the sequels have managed to live up to the original.

With 2.0 seconds left to play in a game they trailed by two in Detroit, Indiana still had a chance to tie or win even after Warren inexplicably regurgitated a recycled miss from Malcolm Brogdon with plenty of time and a timeout in hand on the prior possession. Blessed with a second chance once video replay ruled that Andre Drummond had interfered on an errant free throw from Luke Kennard at the other end, the Pacers exited their final huddle and immediately proceeded to set-up in a familiar alignment — only this time, they had double the choices.

After setting a down screen to propel Warren into a launch pad from Sabonis to rocket to the corner, Brogdon wheeled around and used a pin from the lefty big man to spring toward the ball.

“We had two options off of that,” McMillan said in the aftermath of the loss, regarding the last play. “One was Warren, if he came open, and the other option was Malcolm coming off (the screen). Justin needed to make a read which guy was open. We also had Domas, if they were playing a certain type of defense.”

In creating the necessary separation for Brogdon to cut out for a catch-and-shoot opportunity, the play functioned as intended, but it suffered from operator error. With Drummond releasing from Sabonis to swarm Warren, Holiday needed to wait a beat longer for Brogdon to shake free as his second option instead of rushing the trigger on the inbound pass — especially since the official had only just counted to three.

When given a do-over versus the Hornets a little over a week later, Holiday gave the play ample opportunity to breathe, but his options were decidedly worse and his pass was off-target.

Let’s look back at the initial set-up, shall we? See how Jeremy Lamb is stationed with his back to the basket?

That’s interesting for a number of reasons. Why? Because Indiana, with a history for playing opossum out of timeouts, runs another set that looks just like this called “What the F—!” that calls for the off-ball guard to set a decoy back-screen for the inbound passer and then pop to the perimeter off a screen after the ball moves from big-to-big and back again. In fact, the Pacers just ran this in their season opener, only with Warren cutting through as the first option, like so:

The only problem with that is that set takes much longer than two seconds to execute, which suggests that Lamb quite possibly was deployed to that spot for some other reason than providing a red herring for a set they’ve now used...not once, not twice, but three times in the game’s most critical moments.

For that, watch Justin Holiday. Even before he receives the ball from the official, he’s already motioning for Lamb to clear out.

Assuming the buttery, stop-and-pop scorer didn’t already forget his marching orders that quickly after coming out of the timeout, it appears that — maybe, just maybe — the Pacers intended on using him as a guinea pig to see if the Hornets would switch.

Spoiler Alert: They did, and all sorts of chaos ensued. With Brogdon recognizing that Graham had traded responsibilities, it looks as though he either wanted to respond by swapping roles or attempted to screen his own check so Warren could simply jut to the corner. In any case, because Warren went ahead business as usual and tried to fly over the top, they both ended up bumping into each other, and Goga Bitadze never made contact on either screen. All of which resulted in Brogdon having to hoist up a 33-foot prayer.

In the end, the very same bunched picks that were intended to generate confusion for their opponent ended up only creating a jumbled mess for themselves.

And, here’s the thing: They started that after timeout play with Lamb having a considerable height advantage over Devonte Graham to shoot over the top, and even if they were wary of a double-team reducing his visibility or forcing him to pass with time expiring, Graham switched onto Goga before Holiday ever threw the ball into play.

Granted, Bitadze’s inexperienced, and he made his fair share of rookie mistakes on the night, but that’s a 6-foot-11 center who can shoot being defended at the elbow by a 6-foot-2 guard in a game that was tied. A different read there may have salvaged the fact that they gave up a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter while also rendering moot the controversy surrounding the “game-deciding” call on Sampson in overtime.

Sometimes, the best answers really are the simplest.