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 was supposed to be different Saturday when the postseason dawned in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Pacers had come through their dark days, grown from their troubles, shown some life at the end of the regular season, when the No. 1 seed plopped into their laps.
They were ready to be their old selves.
What was it Frank Vogel said before Saturday night’s game, about whether the Pacers would need any words of inspiration?
Just the atmosphere of the playoffs will work that.
And then they went out and were thumped by the Atlanta Hawks 101-93. As in the No. 8 seed Hawks. As in the 38-44 Hawks. As in ahead by 20 points Hawks.
Just one loss, to be sure.
It isn’t the NCAA, George Hill said. One game doesn’t mean we’re out of the playoffs.
But still. It was supposed to be different, and who can understand why it wasn’t? Trying to explain all the rebounds that got away from Indiana, Roy Hibbert finally sighed, I really don’t know what to say.
And 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. The home team had come through its storm stronger, wiser, more confident, back on task.
Then they played, and the offense turned up numb. From a 50-50 halftime tie, the defense gave up 30 points in the third quarter.
So now what?
I think we’re all right, David 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.
This is why it’s a long series.
The Indiana camp could talk of strategic changes. Foul less. Control Jeff Teague, who beat the Pacers off the dribble often on his way to 28 points.
Easier said than done, West said.
Move the ball better. Get to more loose balls.
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.
Hibbert is still MIO – Missing In Offense. He has not revived his 7-foot-2 inside presence – not when he’s fed a nifty pass on the block, hesitates as if he fears Bill Russell might be in the neighborhood, then gets his shot swatted into the seats by Kyle Korver.
And some of the Pacers’ disarray in the third quarter was unfathomable.
Paul George left the court for the locker room because of a leg cramp with Indiana down four. When he returned three minutes later, the margin was 15.
It felt too much like the March swoon, and this was supposed to be different. The Pacers looked like a beaten team. 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.
The atmosphere of the playoffs did not transform the Pacers.
Maybe a sense of growing urgency can. They lose at home Tuesday, and that’s called a crisis. As it is, they will now have to win at least one game on the road, where they have lost seven of their last nine.
Of course, that was the regular season and this is the playoffs. Things are different, right?