One step forward became two steps backwards too often for the Indiana Pacers tonight, resulting in a late loss to the Brooklyn Nets. With the lone injury diagnosis heading into the game being that of Isaiah Jackson being week-to-week with a hyperextended knee he suffered against Toronto, the Pacers were forced to shuffle their lineups again with Malcolm Brogdon out, moving T.J. McConnell into the starting lineup.
The early returns to that switch proved extremely successful. Led by a pair of Justin Holiday threes, the Pacers quickly jumped ahead 13-5, a lead that moved into double figures with Torrey Craig entering the game. The Pacers shot 5-6 from three point range, forced the Nets into costly turnover after costly turnover, and piled on 38 points at the end of the first.
Craig, hitting a pair of threes himself and feasting off of offensive rebounds, scored 16 points in the opening 15 minutes of game action, helping the Pacers go ahead 46-30. It was then that Nets coach Steve Nash put in Paul Millsap and it was then that the free throw parade for James Harden began.
Brooklyn scored 10 straight, cutting the lead to six, then 13 of the next 18 to take their first lead at 53-51 with just over two minutes in the quarter. In that stretch, the offense completely dried up for the Pacers while their inability to not get called for fouls ramped up. In the 23-5 run the Nets used to take the lead, they shot 14 free throws.
After punching back and retaking the lead on back-to-back shots, Harden finished the half with five more free throws, giving the Nets a healthy 27-8 free throw advantage, Harden attempting 11. Brooklyn then opened the third scoring 10 straight, pushing their lead into double figures for the first time at 68-57.
The Pacers, with their typical third quarter struggles, actually had an answer to this entire mess. Domantas Sabonis and Chris Duarte scored seven straight and Craig hit another three to cut the lead to one. Patty Mills hit a three to push the lead back to four and after a stop, McConnell stopped a fast break by fouling Kevin Durant.
Durant responded with a bit of frustration, flinging the ball into the stands. Despite the rule stating otherwise, the officials opted to make the offense a technical foul with no ejection, possibly on the assumption that Durant may have been aiming at the backboard and just wildly missed instead.
The relative chaos surrounding the decision allowed Durant to draw a foul on a following possession, swelling the lead to six as Rick Carlisle searched for answers to the officiating decision. Shortly after, the Nets got a huge stretch from LaMarcus Aldridge, hitting three straight jumpers to go ahead by 14.
Credit to the Pacers, however, as they worked their way to the free throw line themselves, outscoring the Nets 5-2 to close the quarter. They would extend the run, scoring the first six of the quarter, including a pair of big shots from Jeremy Lamb to cut the lead to five. The downside to all of that success was how laborious it all was. Indiana missed five shots in that stretch, only managing to cut the lead to five instead of potentially taking the lead.
After punching the lead back up to seven a couple of times, Indiana again landed some blows. McConnell led the charge, scoring four in an 8-0 run that would eventually tie the game at 90-90 with five minutes left in the fourth.
Unfortunately for the Pacers, the Nets were there with a timely response (and more free throws) as Harden scored four, kicking off an 8-0 run that finished on an Aldridge putback after Sabonis had come up with an impressive stuff block on Bruce Brown. It wouldn’t be much of a game from that point, as the Nets managed to close the game out without much concern, topping the Pacers 105-98.
The Pacers really stumbled in the middle two quarters tonight, scoring just 38 after having posted that many in the first alone. The Nets had 59, allowing that half of basketball to be the difference. Even though they’d win the fourth quarter, it was extremely shaky at times. The Pacers finished the night at 39.8% shooting, missing some easy shots, taking some bad shots, and simply not converting at the rate they needed to in order to pick up the win.
Three point shooting became an issue after the first, going just 3-23 after their impressive 5-6 start. Craig led the way on the night with four of them, completing a career high 28 points and 11 rebounds. Craig was the catalyst for the Pacers throughout the night, scoring off of offensive rebounds (five) and leading the way at the line for the Pacers (6-8).
Unfortunately, eight is hardly a high enough number when facing Harden. Despite his struggles getting to the line in their opening five games, Harden doubled his free throw attempts tonight alone, going 16-19, nearly as many as Indiana’s 23 alone. Once the avalanche began in the second quarter, it was like old times for Harden, who swung wildly against outstretched defenders and even got a couple of the new no-calls for old times’ sake, allowing him to finish with 29 on 11 shots.
Duarte learned the most from his time guarding Harden tonight, reaching in quite frequently, picking up five fouls in the process. He had some solid moments, scoring 19, but needed 19 shots to get there. The difficulties in relying on a rookie to lead you to wins was on display tonight, but there’s no doubting the experience gained from a night like tonight.
Sabonis was the only other starter in double figures, scoring 16 on 7-14 shooting. He had seven rebounds, six assists, and three steals, playing a solid all around game. Myles Turner was more active, scoring nine with nine boards and two blocks. Holiday would go scoreless after his opening two threes and McConnell would pick up his scoring late in the game after missing his first 10 attempts.
It was even more streaky off the bench. Lamb continued to provide a nice touch in the second unit, scoring 12 (including 4-4 from the line), but outside of Craig and Lamb, the bench was completely scoreless. Brad Wanamaker picked up the backup point guard minutes with Brogdon out, shooting 0-5 from the floor for no points. It was tough going from Wanamaker on that end, feeling often as if Carlisle was seeing how long he could keep him in without running up McConnell’s minutes on the front half of a back-to-back.
It didn’t go all that well in the end, but Sabonis topped out at 35, which may be good as the Pacers return home for a rematch against the Toronto Raptors tomorrow. Speaking of not going all that well in the end, the Raptors blasted the Pacers 118-110 on Wednesday, leaving plenty of room for improvement tomorrow night.