INDIANAPOLIS — Would it be impertinent to suggest that Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel might want to rest his starters once again? Like, in Game 2 of this first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks?
Although the case could be made that the Pacers’ collapsing, disintegrating starting unit — especially Roy Hibbert and George Hill — already took the night off Saturday during an embarrassing and thoroughly dispiriting 101-93 Game 1 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
Somewhere, Tom Petty is crooning Free Falling.
Indiana has become the most confounding team in the NBA, a No. 1 seed that has completely lost its way this second half of the regular season. Suddenly, the Pacers seem poised for a very hard and inexplicable fall. It’s too early to write the epitaph on a once-great season gone terribly wrong, but the time is getting close.
“Now we’ll find out what we’re made of,” Hibbert said in a quiet postgame locker room.
Here’s the crazy thing: This wasn’t a surprise. If you’ve watched the Pacers closely the second half of this season, this wasn’t completely unexpected. This team has lost 13 of its past 23, and two of those victories came with Vogel playing his reserves in an effort to provide the starters with rest.
They said they had to keep Hawks point guard Jeff Teague out of the paint. They didn’t. Not once. Hill consistently got worked over and didn’t get much help from his teammates.
They said they needed Hibbert to make Atlanta’s Pero Antic pay on the defensive end. They didn’t.
They said they needed to play with force and passion, yet they didn’t corral a single loose ball and somehow gave up 14 offensive rebounds to an undersized team that is near the bottom of the league in offensive rebounding.
They said, as they’ve been saying all season, that they had to guard without fouling. They didn’t, as the Hawks went 24-for-29 from the free-throw line, with 11 attempts by Paul Millsap and 10 by Teague.
They said they had to keep Kyle Korver under control from behind the three-point arc, yet there was Korver, time and time again, getting wide-open looks.
This team is in a funk, a fog, and it gives so indication it’s inclined to break out of it any time soon.
By now, Vogel has tried everything to wake his team up during this second-half origami act.
He’s whispered sweet nothings into the players’ ears.
He’s brought down the hammer.
He benched Hibbert against Atlanta the last time the teams met, and he benched the entire starting five in a game against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Then he tried to use the placebo effect, giving them several days off from practice and games in the hope that they would somehow believe that fatigue was their foe, and that time off would be the tonic for the troops.
Nothing has worked.
This was nothing less than a carryover from the last two or three months of a season that is rapidly slipping away. Somewhere along the way, they lost it, lost their cohesion, lost their mojo, lost their implicit trust in one another. And they can’t seem to get it back.
What does Vogel do now? Desperate times, desperate measures.
It’s time to think about fighting Atlanta’s small lineup with a small lineup of their own. It’s time to think about sitting Hibbert and starting Ian Mahinmi or playing a lineup that features David West and Luis Scola at power forward and center. It’s time to give C.J. Watson more minutes; Hill is in his own sort of funk, and failed repeatedly to contain Teague. And, what the heck, why not find minutes for the forgotten one, Chris Copeland?
This is no time to get bull-headed, or their season will be over before you know it.
“We’re going to stick with what we have, but in the playoffs, you’ve got to contemplate everything,” Vogel said. “We’ve got a difficult matchup with a team that has a unique offensive attack, so you consider everything.”
West was asked if it’s time to make some seismic changes, either in the starting lineup or in the rotation.
He shook his head.
“Right now, no,” he said. “We can’t change who we’ve been all year.”
All this time, all this season, they’ve been talking about earning the No. 1 seed and maintaining home-court advantage, and yet, here they are, locked in a series where they’ve already ceded home-court advantage to a team that finished 38-44.
It wasn’t like the Hawks came into Bankers Life Fieldhouse and stole Game 1. No, they took Game 1, and grabbed the Pacers’ lunch money in the process. This was a pretty thorough thrashing, and the Pacers’ lack of fight through the second half was especially galling.
“I think once we eliminate them from spreading us out like they did (Saturday night), we’ll be all right,” Paul George said. “…(The Hawks) played as good a game as they can possibly play.”
Empty words. It’s all the Pacers have to offer right now. If they weren’t ready for Game 1 — especially after getting embarrassed the last time the Hawks came to town — what makes anybody think they’ll get this thing figured out in time to save this season?
The collapse isn’t complete, not yet, but you can see it from here.