It happened again. An early lead turned into a mid-game deficit turned into a spirited fourth quarter comeback attempt turned into a late loss. The Indiana Pacers have been stuck in a Groundhog’s Day existence this February and the end result is a 4-8 record and a third straight loss as the month mercifully wraps up.
Though it might be hard to tell, this was a different game than the last...six, as evidenced by the opponent being the New York Knicks tonight and not one of the other five teams they’ve been caught up in purgatory with. There was also an extra wrinkle as Malcolm Brogdon was a late scratch with a sore right knee.
This moved T.J. McConnell into the starting lineup, which served both to boost Indiana’s energy plays but also lock them into 46 minutes of T.J. McConnell. The latter wasn’t necessarily a negative for the Pacers tonight, but it did end in McConnell losing a pass from Domantas Sabonis in the final seconds with a chance to tie the game.
That play, the 16th turnover and the 25th point allowed off turnover, exacerbated a turnover issue for the Pacers in the final two and a half quarters, going from locked in, building a 46-30 lead halfway through the second, to suddenly finding themselves behind at the half. It all turned rather quickly on the Pacers, as a tough travel call on Myles Turner that had Nate Bjorkgren hot became a Julius Randle putback, spurring a 24-6 run that ended on a Derrick Rose buzzer-beating three, giving New York their first lead of the game at 54-52.
Things went about as expected from that point for Indiana. They quickly fell behind by multiple possessions in the third, forcing them to play catch-up as they have in the second half for what feels like 84 years. After trailing by three heading into the fourth, it took all of 54 seconds for that lead to triple, putting New York on top 87-78.
The Pacers, led by big time energy plays from Edmond Sumner, shot back into the game on an 11-2 run, eventually going ahead with 6:37 in the fourth on Turner’s lone three point make of the game. Turner would push the Indiana lead to five two minutes later, only to see it disappear in 45 seconds on six straight points from RJ Barrett.
That came as part of an 11-0 Knicks run in Winning Time, pushing their lead out to six with just over two minutes to go. The Pacers, as they have, cut the lead again to one, but were unable to keep the momentum going, surrendering four straight while turning the ball over and missing yet another wide open corner three they needed to make.
Sabonis banked in a three with 25 seconds left to cut the lead to two and caught a huge break when Barrett missed both free throws after being fouled. Unfortunately, it ended in the McConnell turnover, securing yet another tough, tough, tough loss.
In these last six games, the Pacers have been the model of consistency and not in a good way. Their 2-4 record in these matchups have all come with deficits heading into the fourth quarter, five of those deficits coming after Indiana had built at least an eight point first half lead.
They’ve gotten there by losing all six third quarters, only to win or tie all six fourth quarters. For good measure, they’ve also trailed by at least seven in each of those fourth quarters, finishing with a total point differential of -3 points, their -33 in third quarters becoming a +32 in the fourth.
The shocking sameness of this game to the last two in particular make it hard to think of Brogdon has a difference maker, but his absence, along with Lamb leaving the game after banging his left knee in the first half, wasn’t without its costs. While McConnell played well, scoring 17 with 12 assists, he did log a staggering 46 minutes.
He didn’t blame the minutes on the game-ending turnover, but it did put a lot of extra weight on his shoulders as Bjorkgren didn’t appear to have any confidence in running point guard minutes for Aaron Holiday or Sumner. Holiday didn’t help his case much with his shooting, finishing 2-10, all of it inside the arc, but he did have a couple of impressive drives to the basket resulting in free throws.
Sumner, meanwhile, worked well off the ball, scoring nine including a fantastic alley-oop highlight from Holiday that’s worth enjoying because even though everything is awful, not everything is that awful.
The bench as a whole brought a lot of nice minutes including run from JaKarr Sampson and Goga Bitadze, combining for seven with a block courtesy of Bitadze. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in the way of a breakout performance even including Sumner, especially with Lamb leaving after playing just 12 minutes.
In the starting lineup, all five starters reached double figures, led by Doug McDermott with 20. He and Justin Holiday combined for 33, including 4-9 from three. The Pacers were solid from deep, finishing 11-28, but just weren’t timely with it. Turner in particular continues to struggle, going just 1-8, missing some good looks that can hopefully start falling soon.
Turner was a big boost defensively in the first half, finishing with four blocks, all of them of the highlight variety. Sabonis meanwhile was effectively covered, scoring 15 with nine assists. Playmaking Sabonis was a must tonight. His best moments were finding guys for good looks that at least sometimes went down. The opposite was the case when he looked to force the offense, resulting in five turnovers.
At least one of those turnovers was a missed foul, resulting in a Bjorkgren technical. He was also on the wrong end of a elbow to the head late leading to a decision by the officials to not call a flagrant foul despite Sabonis being called for a flagrant for an incidental headbutt last night against Boston.
The loss drops Indiana to 9th in the East at 15-17, two games under .500 for the first time since the start of the 2019-20 season (0-3) and their worst record after 32 games since 2016-17. It’s not completely unexpected given their lingering injury situation, but it is frustrating to see them lose the games they’re losing in the way they’re losing them because these are the winnable games. The next 10? Not so much.
The Pacers will have one game against a team currently out of the playoffs in the next three weeks, kicking off a brutal 10-game stretch on the road against the first place Philadelphia 76ers on Monday.