INDIANAPOLIS – There was a hint after Game 4 that the Indiana Pacers had discovered their lost mojo. There was a theory they had finally solved the Atlanta Hawks, and found themselves. There was a suggestion the crisis had passed.
All an illusion, it turned out.
Maybe it ends for them Thursday in Atlanta. Maybe that will be the final splash of their belly flop. If so, Monday will stand as the symbol of a season that so inexplicably, incredibly and indescribably crumbled.
It was a night to take the series by the throat, at home. And the Pacers fell behind by 30 points. You wonder what happened, and you wonder why.
We’re playing a team that is playing the style of play that is capable of doing what they did tonight. Indiana coach Frank Vogel said after Atlanta’s 107-97 victory in Game 5. Since April 6, we’ve known that. They’re testing us, and we’ve got to respond.
The final score is only fine print at this stage. The fact the Pacers cut a 30-point deficit to eight was a rally for honor’s sake, but stirring and futile comebacks do not get an NBA team far in the spring. The pertinent numbers are the Hawks go home for Game 6 with a 3-2 lead, and a chance to clinch. A chance to become the latest No. 8 seed to evict a No. 1.
The Pacers still have hope and a chance. In a series where nobody has managed two victories in a row, it is their turn to win.
But, really, does this match have another 180-degree turn in it?
We did it two days ago, Vogel said. We’ve got to do it again.
But this had the looks of the dagger for Indiana. Every horror movie needs a signature moment of awfulness. The guess is, we saw by halftime Monday night.
The Pacers started the second quarter ahead 21-20. They left it trailing 61-40. Forty-one Atlanta points, 30 in less than eight minutes.
Some of the first half numbers bordered on the supernatural.
At halftime, the Hawks’ bench had scored 34 points. The Indiana reserves had scored two.
At halftime, Mike Scott had scored 17 points and made all five 3-pointers he put up for Atlanta. He had 30 points and two 3-pointers in the first four games combined. How to explain that? Answered Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, I can’t.
At halftime, the Pacers had shot four free throws. They made one.
At halftime, the Hawks were shooting 65.6 percent. They had hit 39.1 percent in the first four games.
In the second quarter, Atlanta put up 11 3-pointers and made nine. Vogel was asked if it was the Hawks’ offense or the Pacers’ defense.
Both. We had a couple of breakdowns on defense, but we didn’t have nine of them.
The game would change in the second half. The lead would grow to 30 in the third quarter, then shrink to eight in the fourth, as Atlanta’s offense began to stand around and watch the clock tick away. The boos of Bankers Life Fieldhouse turned into roars, for a while, anyway.
But all’s bad, that ends bad. There is so much to fix, and not many hours to fix it. And there are some things that can’t be fixed.
The Pacers can’t win when the offense too often resembles a garden of statues.
The Pacers can’t win, when the bench is outscored 45-23.
The Pacers can’t win if the starting center – Roy Hibbert, remember him? – gets no points and no rebounds in 12 minutes.
The Pacers can’t win when one or another Hawk is torching them. Earlier in the series, it was Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap. Monday, it was Butler’s own Shelvin Mack with 20 points and Scott with 17. Maybe if this series goes long enough, the Pacers will find an Atlanta shooter they can guard.
But they’re running out of time. An Indiana season that began so majestically, now teeters on the very edge.