Offensively the Pacers did almost nothing well tonight and this was most apparent at the end of the game. When it came time to win, the Pacers did everything a team can do to lose. Its captain was the worst offender, and you would be hard pressed to find a worse performance by Danny Granger in any other game of his career if you account for context.
It really was a team-wide failure in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, but let’s first recap just how bad Granger was. The beginning of the demise essentially began with his foolish back-court violation.
The Pacers weren’t exactly looking like world-beaters on offense, but some nice play from the front court (namely Tyler Hansbrough and David West) had built them enough of a cushion that they should have been able to win fairly comfortably. They were playing excellent defense, having held the Magic to just 21 points in 21 minutes of second-half play. At that point their 5-point lead felt fairly secure.
Then Granger tried to run a top-of-the-key pick-and-roll with Roy Hibbert. But instead of doing anything useful with the ball, he allowed Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis, two guys who are both slower than him and were playing injured, to blitz him with a double team and force him to passively retreat backwards. Instead of making a strong move to attack or even just give up the ball, he waddled around and spun his way into the back court. Which is illegal. Turnover.
Still, Indiana had a five-point lead and Orlando looked like they might not score 5 more points, so it didn’t seem like much more than a brain fart, a gaffe that nobody would remember as soon as tomorrow. We couldn’t possibly conceive at the time that the Pacers wouldn’t score again.
Danny continued to help in that regard, missing a 3-foot shot in the paint on the team’s next possession. In fairness, it was a good individual post-up by Granger that got him the nice look in the first place. But after backing down Jameer Nelson and splitting a double that came too late to help, he rimmed out a shot that would have put his team up 7 with less than 3 minutes to play.
Fast forward two minutes, and the lead was down to 2. Granger did a good job finding Darren Collison in the corner for a jumper. The now-backup point guard, who was presumably still in the game because of the top-shelf defense he had been playing on Nelson, missed. But Indy slapped around the rebound and it led to two Granger free throws. He stepped to the line with 1:14 left and his team up by 2. He missed the first. Then he missed second.
But, hey, that happens to everyone not named Reggie Miller, Larry Bird or Steve Nash at some point.
The team was still ahead.
The next trip back on offense, with Indiana now down 2, Granger got himself the ball in an iso set on the wing and started backing down Turkoglu. He quickly gained the advantage and worked his way down to the block, where he easily spun baseline for a shot near the rim. Again, he missed, rimming out a shot that most of the people reading this would make at least 8 out of 10 times.
Things just kept getting worse.
But the real worst was yet to come.
Paul George was inbounding the ball with 12 seconds left and the Pacers down 3. It wasn’t easy. It looked like he was on the verge of a five-second violation when he finally tossed it in to Granger. Danny was back near half court and started to make a move. Given his history, you know he was thinking about either pulling up for a long three or faking a move and launching a step-back three. Apparently even he couldn’t decide which move to make because he confused himself enough that shuffled his feet without dribbling. Which is illegal. He was whistled for traveling and turned the ball over.
With 7 seconds left. In a 3-point game. In the playoff game his team had been waiting months to play.
To recap: that makes two missed shots within 3 feet, two rarely-seen turnovers and two missed free throws all in the final 3:30 of the game. Silver lining: At least he didn’t score on the wrong basket.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s not let his teammates off the hook completely. They were also garbage. Granger’s blunders, much like Dahntay Jones’ failings in the team’s regular season loss to Miami, stand out for obvious reasons. But it takes a true collective effort to not put a single point on the board for over 4 minutes. Paul George, for one, was right there along with Danny.
His sins were less glaring but equally unhelpful to winning. On offense he missed two open threes. That is certainly forgivable. You would love to see him knock at least one down since they were both such good looks that came out of two unusually effective (considering how the offense was going) possessions. But sometimes the ball doesn’t go down.
Much worse was his inability to stay with Jason Richardson.
Coming out of a timeout, with the Pacers up 2, J-Rich hit a triple from the top of the key. I’m going to give George a pass on this one mostly, however. It was more a good play call by Stan Van Gundy and excellent execution by the Magic than it was bad defense. They decoyed the real action and eventually ran Jason up from the baseline through a double-screen (by Big Baby and Ryan Anderson no less) to get him the ball in space. George tried to fight through but just got caught up.
Again, it happens.
But the next Richardson three was less forgivable — especially if you remember what happened in the second quarter. Back then is when the Magic really started to break out and punch the Pacers in the mouth for the first time. And it was largely because of three J-Rich triples. He was running George all over the court and generally just out-witting the young defender with crafty cuts. And that is again what he did with Orlando down 75-77 and 1:04 left in the game. Coming just after Granger’s missed free throws, Richardson only had to make a few cuts out beyond the arc and straight shook George off a pick to free himself up for a long-range shot. Of course, he stuck it.
The Magic now had a lead they would never relinquish.
And just like that, they stole home-court advantage from the Pacers.
We can continue to break down all the crunch-time screw-ups (the last major one being a poor decision by Collison to take a pull-up, long two-pointer with 13 seconds left and his team down three). But I have to think that the ending to this game was an anomaly that we won’t see again. You have to believe it was somewhat due to a young, excited team having jitters more so than some sign of things to come. Last year against the Bulls, the Pacers were famously unable to generate any offense down the stretch. So perhaps that same trouble could plague them again. The team is simply better this year so it probably won’t be as bad as it was against Chicago. But even it if is all postseason, it can’t be s bad as this performance tonight. No matter how much they “choke.” NBA teams simply cannot regularly go 4-plus minutes without scoring no matter how inexperienced or ineffective they are.
So this was a worst-case scenario that required both unprecedented boneheadedness from the team captain as well as Jason Richardson stepping up huge (when nobody else on the Magic was doing so) to drill two long shots. It is possible that those things happen again. But it’s unlikely.
Perhaps more troubling then is the lackluster second quarter, which was really the product of the Pacers inability to dictate the tempo of the game. Orlando has been the second-slowest team in the league this season. Part of that was a product of Dwight Howard, but even without their center, this remains a team that wants to spread it out in the half court and bomb away. They have a lot of shooters, and they are more than willing to pass the ball around. That creates long rotations that require sustained discipline and proper close-outs to challenge deep shots. Even with the length Indiana has, that is difficult to do, particularly considering that Hibbert and West are neither speedy nor accustomed to guarding snipers 20 feet from the hoop.
So you know the Magic are going to get some in the half court. As they did in the second quarter.
The best way to counter that is to get them out of their comfort zone: Push the ball and exploit guys like Hedo and Anderson and even Richardson for their inability to keep up in a foot race. The Pacers, for whatever reason, did not do that. They scored just 5 fast-break points. This, compared to the 13 they averaged this season and 14.4 they averaged over their final 15 games of the regular season. That is just not going to get it done.
You know what else isn’t going to get it done? Shooting 13-for-22 from the free-throw line.
Fans love to harp on the refs awarding one team favorable calls. But generally it is the more aggressive team that gets the benefit of the doubt, if there is one. In this series, that will be the Pacers. As mentioned, the Magic will just sit back and take long jumpers all game. That style will not get you to the line. There is a reason Orlando only shot 11 freebies tonight. The Pacers should have had a big advantage since they took 22 free throws. But since the Magic made 8 of their 11 while the Pacers made just 13 of their 22, the edge became negligible. Indiana cannot let that continue.
Ultimately, Pacers fans shouldn’t be overly concerned about this meltdown, as ugly and embarrassing as it must have been to watch your favorite team, a team you thought was legit, vomit all over itself on national TV. If it happens again, yeah, this Pacers team might just not actually be good. But it probably cannot be as bad as it was tonight in crunch time, and the Pacers weren’t even playing particularly well even before the collapse. They shot 34.5% in the game, for example, and that is as unlikely to happen again as not scoring for the final four minutes or shooting below 60% from the line. Sure, they might lose game two and that would be panic time, but they won’t lose it like this.
In short, the series is not yet in jeopardy. The Pacers just need to come out and show why they are more talented on Monday. With nine blocks and general mastery of the defensive paint, Hibbert has shown that he can dominate the interior on one end of the floor. Now he and his teammates need to make sure that it happens on both ends.
Do that, get a few more run-outs in tranisiton, make some free throws, and they should be back on the right track.
As long as, ya know, they don’t have another historic collapse.