A question yet to be answered
The Pacers are 39-11. Realistically, they could lose every one of their remaining 32 games and still make the playoffs. From a broad perspective, life in their world is good.
Still, the occasional lapses in mental toughness, the lack of an edge, is a troubling quality for a team with legitimate championship ambition. The 17-point lead they blew at Orlando on Sunday is the latest, but hardly the only example of late, and a red flag. It’s one thing to give away a game in Orlando in February. It’s quite another to do it in the playoffs.
“They (the Magic) picked up their energy,” coach Frank Vogels said after Orlando’s 93-92 victory. “We have to handle it. There was a stretch there in the third we could have put them away.”
A long, forgiving stretch. Here’s how good the Pacers had it. They were up 15 points late in the third quarter when Victor Oladipo drove the baseline on Roy Hibbert, fell and grabbed his left leg. A timeout called, he got up and limped to Orlando’s bench.
The Pacers could have extended the lead then, but Lance Stephenson, standing behind the three-point line, tried to throw a lob pass from the hip to Paul George. Not surprisingly, it was deflected by Oladipo. The Pacers dodged that bullet and took a 71-54 lead moments later, with less than four minutes remaining in the third period.
“This place has really gotten quiet,” Chris Denari said on the Pacers’ broadcast.
The Pacers relaxed amid that slumber. Paul George fouled Nikola Vucevic, who hit two foul shots. When a whistle blew a play dead on the Pacers’ next possession, Hibbert threw up a three-pointer, just for fun. Hibbert then threw a pass from the foul line over Stephenson’s head and out of bounds. Orlando missed on its next possession, but Hibbert missed a shot in the lane and then was called for a foul on the rebound. Two more foul shots cut the lead to 13.
George Hill then missed an open three-pointer. Vucevic tipped in a missed shot while Hibbert tried to block him out. Ian Mahinmi missed two free throws. David West tapped Tobias Harris on the elbow as he went up for a jump shot. Harris hit both, and the lead was nine. Paul George then threw a sloppy, telegraphed bounce pass to West that was picked off. Orlando turned the ball over and George hit a three-pointer from the left corner to restore a 12-point lead, but Oladipo hit two foul shots to make it 10. George missed an off-balance three, Mahinmi grabbed the long rebound and George tried again, missing a step-back jumper.
Orlando continued what became a 32-8 run into the fourth period to take a seven-point lead, but the Pacers got enough breaks and made enough plays to nearly take it back. They were within two points on George’s three-pointer with 37.7 seconds left, then Stephenson drew a foul on the inbounds pass. George, however, missed a three-pointer at 25.1, leading to a free throw for Oladipo. When Hill got a breakaway dunk off a jump ball that Orlando controlled to bring the Pacers within a point with 16 seconds left, it seemed another destined victory. Especially after Vucevic threw his inbound pass threw West’s legs and into Stephenson’s hands.
George, however, forced a shot in traffic rather than passing to Hill or C.J. Watson – an appropriate ending for a game filled with poor judgment, starting with the decision to relax in the comfort zone.
Perspective should be maintained. Every NBA team over the course of the 82-game season will blow leads, will lose games it shouldn’t lose, will find ways to beat itself. But not every team is capable of winning a championship, as the Pacers are, and championship teams keep those kind of games to a minimum.
The Pacers are talented enough to win a championship. The question remains, are they tough enough?