The Indiana Pacers continue to struggle finding their way into the win column, dropping to 2-5 in their last seven in their lone loss of the season to the Atlanta Hawks. The positives the Pacers had in the second and third quarters were book-ended spectacularly by their poor play in the other two.
Though offense proved a uniting theme in both quarters, it was the defense that had a tough go from the outset. The Pacers started out with a major Trae Young problem, surrendering 18 points to Young in the first quarter. Young put the Hawks up 21 points with 2:20 left in the quarter, leaving the Pacers to salvage it the best they could, cutting it to 17 heading into the second.
Things clicked for Indiana in the second. Justin Holiday in particular provided a big boost off the bench, scoring 16 points in the first half. The Pacers climbed back in the game while Young was on the bench, but kept the good times rolling even when he returned, climbing to within four in the late states of the quarter on an 11-0 run, seven of those points coming from Jeremy Lamb.
That run cut the lead to four, but while Young was continuing to torch the Pacers, Kevin Huerter hit a pair of threes late in the quarter to push it back to seven. J. Holiday ended the half with his fourth three, again making it a four point game at the break. Indiana broke through into the lead for the first time in the third quarter, when Aaron Holiday hit a three, then setting up T.J. Warren for a four point play that put them on top 68-66.
Indiana extended their lead to four, but couldn’t push it beyond that, contending heavily with the Young/Huerter combo that sent the game back and forth throughout the remainder of the third. The Pacers did lead 95-91 with a minute in the third, but surrendered five in that final stretch to give the Hawks a 96-95 edge heading into the fourth.
The game continued back and forth early in the quarter, but took a turn for the worse when T.J. McConnell turned his ankle two and a half minutes into the fourth. To that point, The Pacers had six points with two assists, trailing 102-101. McConnell was assessed a technical on the injury after throwing the ball in frustration, giving the Hawks an extra point.
From that point, the Pacers had absolutely no purpose offensively. The defense stood up well enough throughout the game, but helmed by Aaron Holiday, the offense slogged through ball stopping possession after ball stopping possession. Every basket became a labor within itself, with Atlanta’s defense able to fully lock into the black hole offense run exclusively through Holiday, Lamb, and T.J. Warren.
So it was no surprise that a perpetual 1-4 point deficit felt closer to 5-8 points when easy shots were completely off the table. The Pacers had just one assist in the final 9:35, the most ball movement coming off of offensive rebounds. The Pacers had five in the quarter, scoring just four points on those. Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner had three of those, but a Sabonis putback was the only shot attempt either big had once McConnell went out of the game.
The other two second chance points came from Warren, who split two trips at the line. Indiana shot 29-35 from the line for the game, an 83% clip overall, but were a dreadful 4-8 in the final quarter, splitting all four of their trips to the line. This set up 113-111 deficit heading into the final 4.5 seconds of the game.
Warren, who had just split a trip at the line, fouled Young on the inbounds, very nearly a dead ball foul. It ended up a common whistle, and the Pacers caught a huge break when Young, an 84% free throw shooter, missed the first attempt, guaranteeing life for the Pacers with no timeouts. Young hit the second, setting up the inbounds, which went as follows:
Sabonis, by design (!?), launched the ball 3⁄4 court, allowing Young to intercept the pass, getting fouled by Holiday, and sealing the win. It is, quite simply, one of the most perplexing inbounds passes possible with so much time on the clock. While Indiana had struggled manufacturing points of any kind in the fourth, the amount of time on the clock (again, 4.5 seconds) was enough to do literally anything besides an inbounds heave.
While the pass sealed the win, the struggles defensively in the first quarter really proved to be what did Indiana in. It put the Pacers in a 21-point hole from the outset, all while forcing no turnovers. It kept them from fully capitalizing on their play in the second and third quarters to build a sustainable lead.
Either by design or the Hawks being gassed on a second night of a back-to-back, they did play well enough to win the game defensively in the fourth quarter. Indiana allowed just 20 points in the fourth, while forcing three turnovers. In the game, forced 14, committing just 11, but were outscored 16-10 in points off turnovers.
The black hole offense really took away from the successful play of Indiana’s bigs throughout the night. Sabonis had a team high 25 points on 11-15 shooting while Turner, shooting just 2-8, went to the line 11 times, hitting nine attempts, scoring 14. The combined shooting of Warren, Holiday, and Lamb in the fourth quarter was 2-17.
Among the highlights of the game was Vince Carter becoming the first player in NBA history to play in four different decades. The semantics of whether the decade begins with a 0 or a 1 aside, it’s a monumental achievement for Carter, who debuted on February 5, 1999. Carter played his first game against Indiana on February 24 of that year, scoring a then career best 28 points. He lost that game, but picked up a win tonight in what will be his final game against the Pacers.
In addition to being just 2-5 in their last seven, the Pacers have now lost four straight road games, dropping them to 7-10 overall after climbing above .500 against Atlanta in December. That may be a problem with Indiana’s road heavy January, especially if there are now injury concerns with McConnell. The Pacers will wrap up a two game trip on Monday, when they travel to face the Charlotte Hornets.