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Indiana gives another baffling performance

– The unhappy murmurs and occasional angry booing were back for the Pacers. The ragged offense and porous defense. The staggering rebound deficit – this is no misprint: 62-23 – that suggested simply being outfought. Or worse than that, outwilled.

The bad news on the home scoreboard had returned, with its message of missed opportunity.

Pacers center Roy Hibbert was back to being dominated, outscored 31-4 by Washington counterpart Marcin Gortat and outrebounded 16-2.

And the questions. The same familiar, inexplicable questions.

What gets into this team? And why? The Pacers are so good and so impressive. Except when they’re not.

“We didn’t show up tonight,” Pacers forward David West said after Tuesday night’s 102-79 meltdown to Washington in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Not show up? With a chance to close out a series? How can that be?

“I don’t know if we thought we were just going to come in here and these guys would roll over,” West said. “I just don’t know where we were tonight.”

The Pacers are a team that defies consistent description. Write them off as doomed, and they survive.

But expect them to win, to clinch, to move on, and they produce a dud.

Tuesday night, for instance. The egg they laid would have made the world’s biggest omelet.

It was all right there. The chance to advance and start talking about the Miami Heat. What could be left of the Wizards, anyway, after two defeats at home?

“They had a greater will. They played desperation basketball,” Paul George said. “And we played like it was going to be easy.”

But this postseason is not going to be easy for the Pacers. Not with a team that does not go forward so much as it sways. First one direction, then the other.

So the Wizards cut the Indiana series lead to 3-2. Gortat, who had six points combined in the past two games in Washington, made 13 of 15 shots. The rebounding margin was so astonishing, Wizards coach Randy Wittman tried to recall ever seeing such a thing before, going back to his Indiana University and Ben Davis High School days.

“I’d probably have to answer, no I haven’t,” he said.

And now the matter goes back to Washington for Game 6. Dare you to predict with any confidence what happens next?

“It’s one loss, whether you lose by 20-something or your lose by one point,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said.

The Pacers will now get nationally re-ripped, but they’re used to the noise. Maybe they finish the Wizards in Washington on Thursday, or back here in Game 7, a la Atlanta.

But they have lost any chance for rest before the Miami series – if there is a Miami series – and they have opened themselves to new charges. How can a team get manhandled like this, at home, with a chance to clinch, and be truly ready for prime time?

“I don’t have an answer for that,” West said. “We’ve got to be able to handle these moments.”

Here is an telling number from Tuesday: 32-11. That was the rebound margin in the first half. Gortat, turning into Bill Russell, had a double-double by halftime and owned as many rebounds as the entire Indiana team.

What does that say about the Pacers’ purpose, on what could have been a night of passage?

What does it say that they lost only six times in 41 regular season home games but are 3-4 in the postseason? What does it say that on this night of opportunity, the starting lineup was outscored by Washington’s starters 90-48?

“We’ve got to come to the fight,” West said. “If we want this series, we’re going to have to take it.”

But who is this team, really? When the Pacers put away Atlanta and went up 3-1 on Washington, we thought we had some answers. There are no answers. Just today’s best guess, which may be totally different tomorrow.

Mike Lopresti is a freelance columnist. His columns appear periodically.

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