The Indiana Pacers fought to the NBA regular season’s final game, but were unable to finish their determined push for a fifth consecutive playoff berth.
After leading by as many as eight points in the opening quarter, the Pacers fell behind the Memphis Grizzlies by double digits after a disastrous second quarter and never recovered in a 95-83 road loss Wednesday night at FedExForum.
The Pacers’ loss coupled with the Brooklyn Nets’ 101-88 home win over Orlando pulled the teams even in the Eastern Conference standings at 38-44, but the Nets get the No. 8 playoff seed by virtue of the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The outcome was an incredibly disappointing conclusion for an Indiana squad that had overcome a combined 219 games lost to injuries to contend for a playoff spot. The Pacers tried to persevere despite not having two-time All-Star Paul George, their best scorer and defender, for most of the season.
After breaking two bones in his lower right leg on Aug. 1, he pushed himself in rehab and eventually returned for the last six games as a reserve. But George needed to be carried off the floor in the fourth quarter due to a sore left calf. He was then carried to the locker room by teammates David West and Donald Sloan.
It was a final painful reminder of what this team has had to endure this season.
Despite four losing streaks of at least six games and a record of 4-12 in games decided by three points or less, the Pacers continued to “stay in the fight,” as head coach Frank Vogel kept saying. They were once 17-33 through January, prompting most to give up on their chances. They finished 23-11.
Indiana entered on a six-game winning streak after a 99-95 victory in double overtime over Washington Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They knew after such a draining challenge — rallying from a nine-point, fourth-quarter deficit — that the season finale was a simple scenario: win and they’re in, lose and they’re probably done. They expected the Nets would defeat the lowly Magic (25-57).
The Pacers’ 24-hour turnaround against one of the Western Conference’s best teams proved too much of a final obstacle. The Grizzlies (55-27) earned a fifth seed with the victory.
C.J. Miles got the Pacers off to a fast start. The shooting guard scored 18 of his team-high 26 points in the first half.
But Memphis erased a two-point deficit with a 32-17 advantage in the second quarter to take a 13-point halftime lead. Indiana struggled to defend center Marc Gasol, who had a season-high 33 points. Forward Zach Randolph added 18.
The Pacers reduced the deficit 67-59 on a George Hill 3-pointer late in the third quarter. Hill finished the best season of his seven-year career with 20 points. But the Grizzlies took a 12-point lead into the final quarter.
The visitors went on a 7-0 run to cut the margin to seven with 6:01 remaining. But the Pacers would not get any closer. The Grizzlies’ Jeff Green converted a turnover into a clinching three-point play for a 90-79 lead with 2:19 remaining.
Sitting on the bench during a timeout before Green hit a free throw to complete the three-point play, West smacked a towel at the floor in disgust.
For the first time since 2010, the Pacers pack their bags for the offseason in April. Offseason questions are numerous. Who will remain to rebuild with a healed George? Forward David West and center Roy Hibbert can opt out of their contracts. West hinted before preseason that his 12th NBA season could be his last. Hibbert has been inconsistent at best.
Pacers guard Rodney Stuckey was one of the team’s best players, especially when coming off the bench, and has said he would like to return. He had signed a one-year contract last offseason in hopes of playing with George and for a title contender.
Vogel will be back for his fifth full season. He signed a multi-year extension in October.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.