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Pacers final score: Nuggets escape Pacers 125-118

Indiana erased a 31-point deficit against Denver but were unable to close out the win, extending their losing streak to five games. Buddy Hield led the Pacers with 20 points.

Denver Nuggets v Indiana Pacers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

They were unable to come away with the win, but the Indiana Pacers put everything into their impressive comeback against the Denver Nuggets, falling short late after having taken a 102-100 lead early in the fourth quarter, erasing a 31-point first half deficit. The turnaround put a pause on all of the takes and the miserable showing

It was business as usual for the sorry Pacers to start, allowing the Nuggets to blow the game wide open on a nonchalant 20-0 run after Indiana had kept the game in check through the first six minutes, trailing 14-10. Denver would put in seven threes to close the first, outscoring Indiana 43-15 in the first.

A dominating stretch from DeMarcus Cousins would continue to expand the lead and a Bryn Forbes three made it a 31-point game at 50-19, a truly incomprehensible NBA score. Nothing was right for the Pacers, not with their lackluster offense, especially not the completely busted defense that (unsurprisingly) struggled with Nikola Jokic as well as every other aspect of the Denver offense.

Through the bad, Jalen Smith and Keifer Sykes (with a little help from Duane Washington Jr.) gave the Pacers some points to at least keep the deficit from jumping immediately to 40, finally forcing a Denver timeout on a mini 5-0 run that cut the deficit to 25. Something happened at that point in the game. Either the Nuggets figured it was a wrap (who could blame them?) or the Pacers decided they had had enough, but the Pacers found a spark, somehow making it a game despite still being so far out of reach.

Mike Malone was forced to use another Nuggets timeout barely two minutes later after Indiana had cut the lead to 20 on a 7-0 run, slicing into the paint for easy buckets . Jokic’s return to the game settled Denver just enough, but the Pacers finally managed to make another push on back-to-back threes from Goga Bitadze and Buddy Hield, helping the Pacers to a 69-53 halftime deficit, outscoring Denver 38-26 in the quarter.

Out of the break, the Pacers continued their surge, cutting the lead to 10 before falling behind by 16, then finally making it a single digit game on a 10-0 run led by five points from Justin Anderson. Bitadze had five of his own with Terry Taylor stepping up to make it a one-point game with 4:39 remaining in the third.

Tyrese Haliburton completed the comeback with back-to-back buckets, giving Indiana their first lead at 86-85. It proved short-lived, but it wasn’t the only lead of the quarter for the Pacers when Smith scored on a scorcher of a dunk courtesy of a twirling Haliburton, putting Indiana up 91-89 in the final minute of the third.

Bones Hyland flipped the scoreboard to open the fourth with a pair of tough drives to the basket, setting off a frenzied back-and-forth that electrified the Gainbridge Fieldhouse crowd fueling Lance Stephenson to some big time gamesmanship, successfully baiting Austin Rivers into two technical fouls and an ejection after Rivers went high on an elbow against Stephenson.

The ejection allowed the Pacers to tie the game at 100-100 when Jokic finally returned. Sykes put the Pacers on top after stealing the ball from Will Barton and finishing on the other end, but it would be the last taste of the lead the Pacers would have on the night as Jokic managed to settle the game down, composing a frazzled Nuggets squad and tempering the Fieldhouse fans.

Denver took the lead on a 7-0 run and an inability to capitalize off of a pair of turnovers by Jokic more or less sealed their fate down the stretch as the Nuggets outscored Indiana 25-18 in the final eight minutes to drop the Pacers into their fifth straight loss.

The Nuggets would close out the game shooting 62.5% from the floor, scoring 68 points in the paint in the process. Though Indiana wasn’t great at completing stops, their ability to force turnovers and live on the offensive glass gave them something resembling an identity after so many games wandering the desert.

The Pacers forced the Nuggets into 20 turnovers, including seven from Jokic, outscoring Denver 25-13 in points off turnovers. They also corralled 18 offensive boards, 14 of those courtesy of Taylor (8) and Bitadze (6), leading to 23 second chance points. With Jokic and Cousins combining for 18-23 in the paint, those advantages proved crucial in the comeback attempt.

It was a balanced effort for the Pacers with seven double figure scorers, led by Hield with 20. Hield went 5-11 from three point range and dished four assists and was the beneficiary of just one assist from Haliburton, a bucket with two minutes remaining the temporarily cut the lead to six.

It was the 12th assist on the night for Haliburton, leading to a double double with 15 points. Eleven of those assists would come in the second and third quarters, finding five different players as the Pacers outscored Denver 76-48, a score the Pacers have found themselves on the opposite end of far too often as of late.

Bitadze would finish the night with a double double of his own, scoring 17 points with 10 rebounds. Those six offensive boards went a long way as Bitadze had his struggles early against Jokic, finishing the night just 5-14 from the floor, though he put in a pair of threes in the process. Taylor meanwhile had 18 points and nine boards, those eight on the offensive end tying a career best with Taylor now having pulled in more offensive rebounds than defensive rebounds in his rookie season.

Anderson played well himself with 13 points and three steals, second most on the team behind Haliburton’s four. The only downside to Anderson’s offensive outing came from deep where he was just 1-6, unable to get his looks to drop in. The Pacers as a team were just 12-40, but did manage to hold Denver to 12 makes, a much better outing compared to the 18 they’ve allowed in their last three games.

Off the bench, Smith led the way with 15 and seven with Sykes scoring 10. Stephenson finished with just five points, but his antics in the fourth were a huge boost to the adoring crowd, terrorizing Rivers into his eventual ejection. The comedy of the entire stretch wasn’t lost on Stephenson, who immediately smelled blood after a slight nudge on Rivers on an out of bounds play goaded him into a double technical.

Stephenson went right at Rivers on the ensuing Pacers possession, drawing the foul. With the two bumping into each other the whole way down the floor, Rivers took it upon himself to go after Stephenson, going high with a clear-out elbow that grazed Stephenson’s beard. Stephenson fell back slightly, turning to the officials with a look of surprise, prompting Tony Brothers to wrap up the back-and-forth a Rivers ejection.

With the bench loving the energy, it’s a shame they weren’t able to ride it to a thrilling win, but with Jokic orchestrating the outcome with precision, Indiana was made to pay for too many empty possessions down the stretch. Through all of that, it was an outcome that’s worth living with.

There’s no shame in losing to a better team with only nine available players. That’s far preferable in fact to the embarrassment the Pacers have been in their losses leading up to this comeback. Denver 50-19 lead (again, that’s a crazy score) was a low-point all its own this season, so to see it turned around through effort and turnovers went a long way in injecting just enough life into the final week and a half of the season.

It’s hard to say where this winning effort might actually result in a win or two in these final six games as they hit the road for a matchup with the Boston Celtics. The Pacers took it to the Celtics a month ago, which might make it a bit harder to sneak up on them on Friday.