The Indiana Pacers have a dynamic two-way star forward who's probably one of the 12 best players in the league, a defense that suffocates opponents nightly and an experienced and respected head coach that's navigated them through tons of high-pressure situations.
And yet, there they were choking another close game away Tuesday. In a critical contest against the Chicago Bulls, the Pacers blew a double-digit lead and fell apart down the stretch of a 98-96 loss. With the loss, Indiana is now just two games ahead of the ninth-place for the final playoff spot.
The loss was a continuation of a disturbing trend for the Pacers. This was the 20th time this season they've dropped a game where they at one point led in the fourth quarter. In other words, they've blown a late lead of some kind in more than one out of every four games this campaign. That's what happens when you shoot just 5-of-22 from the floor during the game's final quarter, like the Pacers did against the Bulls.
The problems grew even worse for Indiana in the final five minutes of the game, as they so often have this season. Statistically, the Pacers aren't any worse at scoring in clutch situations (defined as games that are within five points with under five minutes remaining). It's always a struggle for them to create points, which is why they rank No. 26 in points per 100 possessions overall this season. They rely heavily on isolations and points off turnovers, so it becomes difficult for them to generate clean looks when defenses tighten up late in games.
Their stale offense becomes an especially glaring weakness as the game reaches its most important points. Here was their last-second shot attempt Wednesday night when trailing the Bulls by two:
The ball didn't end up in the hands of Paul George or even Monta Ellis, nor did it go to a player streaking towards the rim. Instead, it was thrown backwards to a stationary C.J. Miles, clearly the safety option on the play.
To be fair, last-second shots are hard and set plays often don't play out as hoped. However, Miles' miss marked the 25th time the Pacers have attempted a shot with 10 or fewer seconds remaining in a one-possession game. They have missed 24 of those attempts, according to the Indianapolis Star.
That's a trend, not an aberration. The Pacers simply cannot create a half-decent look whenever they need a basket late in a game. The Pacers' second-to-last shot in Tuesday's loss was a fadeaway jumper by rookie Myles Turner over the outstretched arms of Pau Gasol with just five seconds left on the shot clock. Gasol blocked the shot.
That said, Indiana's offensive struggles pale in comparison to the numerous defensive breakdowns the Pacers seem to commit every time there's a close game. They are especially strange because defense is the backbone of the team's success at all other points in the game. The Pacers have talented defenders with the right physiques, a solid scheme honed by years of practice and a coach who's been building top units for years now.
That's why it's baffling that Bulls guard Jimmy Butler can get such a clean look with the game on the line.
Not only was Butler allowed to get off a shot that a rec league player can knock down, but the Pacers also managed to leave Nikola Mirotic, a man who had already dropped 28 points and hit seven of his 13 thee-point attempts in the game, wide open from behind the arc.
How does that happen?
"That was going to be the play for us to switch and guard the [isolation]," George said afterwards, via the Indy Star. "But [Mirotić] slipped out, which caused the confusion on our path."
The Pacers are surrendering nearly seven more points per 100 possessions in the final five minutes of games within five points, per NBA.com. However, a quick glance at the numbers fails to unearth any overarching cause. On the aggregate, Indiana is still good at limiting and defending corner three-pointers in the game's final quarter. They're not great at contesting shots in the paint, but few teams are better at keeping opponents out of there.
The Pacers do struggle rebounding the ball at times and they're often pounded on the glass late in close games. That leads to a ton of second-chance points (including Butler's game-winning jumper) and looks from the paint.
The reality is that mental mistakes have harmed them most. Earlier in the quarter, George and Solomon Hill botched a simple switch that left Mirotic wide open for a corner three. Luckily for the Pacers, he missed, but the sequence illustrated Indiana's problem.
While that mental breakdown didn't lead to a bucket, others have caused so many losses throughout the year. For whatever reason, a team that so often defends on a string, covers dangerous shooting options and properly follows scouting reports in the first 43 minutes forgets to do so in the final five. For example, a collective breakdown in this January sequence left Trevor Ariza open for the game-tying three. The Houston Rockets eventually won in overtime.
Overall, the Pacers are 17-21 in games that are within three points with less than a minute remaining. The 21 losses leads the league.
While the Pacers are currently in eighth place, they're just 4.5 games behind fourth-place Miami and 5.5 games behind third-place Atlanta. If they avoided just a handful of those last-minute brain farts, they'd be battling for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Instead, they could be in jeopardy of missing the postseason entirely with a couple more bad results, all because they can't figure out how to execute the simplest concepts.
The margin in the bunched Eastern Conference is razor-thin, but the Pacers only have themselves to blame for it.
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