Paul George, Pacers try to make sense of another loss to Hawks

Kevin C. Cox

Title aspirations have been replaced by a search for identity in Indiana after they fell in Game 3 to the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks to trail 2-1 in the series.

SB Nation 2014 NBA Playoff Bracket

Once serious contenders, the Indiana Pacers are fighting to get out of the first round after another loss to the Atlanta Hawks Thursday night. Now trailing 2-1 in the seven-game series, talk of a big title run has completely evaporated at this point -- instead, the Pacers are simply trying to figure out what the heck happened.

Much of that focus has been placed on center Roy Hibbert, the two-time All-Star that's inexplicably seen his game fall apart over the past few months. It's gotten so bad that head coach Frank Vogel needed to defend his big man after the 98-85 loss on Thursday, saying he "probably" hasn't lost his starting spot just yet. Via the Indianapolis Star:

"We'll look at everything,'' Vogel continued. "I can't say (he's starting in Game 4) for right now. But I do have confidence in Roy Hibbert. I do have that. He hasn't played well in this series to this point, but I do have great confidence in him.

"We're not going to quit on him. We're going to keep trying to figure it out.''

In Game 3, Hibbert played just 19 minutes, recording four points and two rebounds. While he's always been appreciated primarily for his defense, even that aspect of his game has become suspect. And on offense, well, this pretty much sums up the kind of disaster he's become:

Again, Hibbert is a 7'2 center in the NBA. With struggles this bad, you have to wonder if it's in Roy's head at this point. "It's my fault," he said after the game.

Meanwhile, the Pacers' other star player, Paul George, continues to deal with his own issues. Coming off a spectacular Game 2 in which he lead Indiana to victory with 27 points and 10 rebounds, George stumbled to score just 12 points on 3-of-11 shooting in Game 3. Afterwards, he put the blame on his early foul trouble:

"Those early fouls, I've got to sit and it just takes me completely out of my zone,'' George said.

George got whistled for two first-quarter fouls on Thursday night, forcing the team to lean heavily on other players. Obviously, that didn't go well, as the Pacers shot just 38 percent from the field and really only kept the game close thanks to an advantage on the boards.

Indiana may be the No. 1 seed, but the team hasn't looked the part in a while.

When the Pacers appeared to be ascending in the NBA hierarchy last season, it was almost entirely because of how Hibbert and George emerged as top players. Now that we've seen some apparent regression from both, it's startling to see how far back that's set the team. Instead of preparing for another bout against Miami in the East Finals this spring, the Pacers may not even make it out of the first round.

It's a surprising situation, but as Vogel said, it's something the team will continue to work on. Just a few months ago, everyone expected George and Hibbert to be blowing up the playoffs. Now, they're simply hoping not to blow it.

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