Analysis: Pacers Prompt Head-Shaking

Indiana unable to stop Bulls in last-second setback at home.

Go ahead, exhale and blurt it out: These Indiana Pacers drive you crazy.

That is, if there are any fans still allowing themselves to be overly emotional about the maddeningly inconsistent Blue & Gold, especially after yet another close loss in a game the Pacers sure could have had to bolster their playoff pursuit.

Instead of closing out a wounded animal, the hosts generously gave the other guys a gift, a final-second miscommunication in a tie game. A screen on Paul George was expected. But the Pacers didn’t react properly.

Point guard George Hill should have switched to take Jimmy Butler after George was sealed off by Nikola Mirotic. But that didn’t happen. Butler had a wide open look. And he’s not going to miss. 

The 10-foot jumper with 3.7 seconds remaining enabled the Chicago Bulls to snap a four-game losing streak and sustain a playoff pulse with a 98-96 road win over the Pacers Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The seventh-place Pacers fall to 39-35, the same record as the Detroit Pistons, although Indiana has the tiebreaker for that seed with eight games remaining. The Bulls are even at 37-37. Their situation was rather dire.

“We needed this win,” Butler said.

The Pacers should could have used it, too. George suggested his team has reached “its peak” in terms of close losses after dropping to 9-9 in games decided by one possession.

“They executed down the stretch,” a despondent George said in almost a whisper. “I tip my hat to the Bulls.”

Center Ian Mahinmi, who had an 18-point game after tying a career-high with 19 two nights ago, admitted there was a miscommunication on Butler’s deciding basket. Pacers head coach Frank Vogel acknowledged it, too.

“We were supposed to switch,” he said. 

The Bulls’ plan was for Butler, if he didn’t get the look, to pass to Mirotic, who led all scorers with 28 points off the bench. He had scored 20 of those points in the first half and finished the game 7-of-13 from the 3-point line. Mirotic was supposed to set a screen but quickly slip outside.

“We were trying to confuse them and slip them out,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said of the designed play.

It sure worked.

The Pacers limited the Bulls to just 14 points in the final quarter. Problem is, Indiana scored just 12.

“Too many lost possessions on the offensive end, seven turnovers, we settled for perimeter shots, zero free throws and we missed open looks,” Vogel said of the late struggles.

After both teams scored 84 points through three quarters, neither was able to score. It didn’t help that George rolled his left ankle in the final seconds of the third quarter. The three-time All-Star finished with a team-high 20 points, but wasn’t nearly as effective after the injury. 

In a deviation from the usual last-second strategy, forward C.J. Miles actually took the Pacers’ final shot, a missed 3-pointer from the top of the key. The Pacers lead the league in one-possession outcomes. Problem is, they’re tied with Orlando for the second-most losses in this category.

The most recent loss all but nixes any notion the Pacers could somehow climb above the seventh seed. Vogel had recently suggested that was the goal, but Indiana is four games behind Charlotte for that sixth seed with eight to go. Safe to say it doesn’t seem like that has any chance of happening.

So the Pacers will slug it out with the Pistons, Bulls and the Washington Wizards to decide two spots. Should the Pacers secure that seventh spot, the first-round playoff opponent is the Toronto Raptors. Most will expect the Raptors to win, but the Pacers have had Toronto down in the fourth quarter of two-regular season losses. Indiana knows it can play with those guys.

The eighth seed’s reward is LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Forget about it. Nobody outside Indiana’s locker room would give the Pacers any shot of that upset.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter either way. Maybe the Pacers’ one-and-done playoff fate is inevitable.

That is, if Indiana qualifies for the postseason, which unfortunately continues to be very much in doubt as the season nears an end.

“Sometimes it’s a make or miss league,” Vogel said.

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.

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