The Herald Bulletin

April 20, 2014

Mike Lopresti: Pacers remain puzzling

The Herald Bulletin

---- — INDIANAPOLIS — So now what?

The NBA playoffs began Saturday night, and nothing had changed. They are still the Indiana Puzzles. They are still the enigma that no one can explain, least of all themselves. They are still a shadow of December, only now, the defeats start to really hurt.

It did not take long for the Pacers to hit the first postseason crossroads. Three hours into the playoffs. They lose Game 2 Tuesday night to the Atlanta Hawks, they go down 2-0 at home, the word “collapse” will start to get bandied about, if it hasn’t been already. What a phrase to use for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

As it is, to survive this series, the Pacers will have to win at least once on the road, where they have dropped seven of their last nine games. But that was the regular season, and this is different. Right? Right?

Anyone know where the panic button is?

OK, that’s a little premature.

Anyone know where the deeply concerned button is? Because nothing has changed.

The Pacers say they understand. The say, correctly, that the 101-93 sink of dirty dishes Saturday night was just one game.

“It isn’t the NCAA,” George Hill said. “One game doesn’t mean we’re out of the playoffs.”

True. But then again, it was not just one game. Rather it was one more game, in a long slide that keeps defying explanation. At the beginning of the season, Indiana was a fascinating story because of how well it was playing. Lately, the Pacers are a fascinating story because of how poorly they’re playing.

It is entirely possible that Game 1 ends up a mirage. Happens all the time. Teams adjust, teams recover, teams fix.

“This is why it’s a long series,” David West said.

But the gloomy message from Saturday is maybe the Pacers can’t adjust, or recover, or fix. An irreversible swoon.

Because it was supposed to be different when the postseason dawned in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Pacers had come through their dark days stronger, wiser, more confident, back on task, after the No. 1 seed plopped into their laps. Theoretically.

What was it Frank Vogel said beforehand, about whether the Pacers would need any words of inspiration?

“Just the atmosphere of the playoffs will work that.”

Then they went out and were thumped by the Hawks. One minute, Indiana was supposedly primed and revived for crunch time. The next, it was behind 20 points.

Plan B, anyone?

“We can’t change who we’ve been all year,” West said. “We’ve got enough. We’ve got to put together more solid stretches.”

Maybe they no longer can. Just a thought. Clearly, whatever the answer they’ve been looking for in the past troubled weeks is not easy to find. The Pacers are not only a puzzle, they are a five-star difficulty puzzle.

Trying to explain all the rebounds that got away from Indiana, Roy Hibbert finally sighed, “I really don’t know what to say.”

Vogel mentioned, “I’m a little surprised we didn’t play better.”

The Pacers had gold shirts for all the customers Saturday night, hoping for a reboot from the season. It looked as if the game was being played in the middle of a wheat field. But there was nothing golden about the offense that went numb. The defense that gave up 30 points in the third period. Or how the Hawks beat the Pacers to so many 50-50 balls, the ratio had to be changed to 80-20.

So now what?

“I think we’re all right,” West said. “We talked a little bit after the game. We can’t just be in here like mutes. We’ve got to talk. That’s one of the strengths of this group. We immediately start preparing for the next challenge and the next game. We have to have open communications.”

The Indiana camp will talk of strategic changes. Fewer fouls, smarter defense, better ball movement. And maybe get to a few long rebounds and loose balls first.

“If you don’t win the 50-50 battle in the playoffs,” Vogel said, “you lose.”

But there is something more subtle. This just doesn’t look like the same team. The body language is ominous. What to do about that?

“Get a lead,” Vogel said. “The body language didn’t look any different than any team losing a basketball game. We’ve got to play better. That’ll take care of our energy and enthusiasm.”

Sounds simple enough. Obviously, it isn’t.