For the first time since mid-February, since a season-long losing streak that spanned six games, the Pacers found consistency. Trouble is, it’s again on the losing end.
One of the key stories with this year’s bunch is how they’ve consistently been inconsistent.
After alternating win-loss for the last 15 games, that streak ended and another began. A losing streak of two after they got beat by the Denver Nuggets once again this season, 125-117. Nikola Jokic went for 30 points and 17 boards, and Danilo Gallinari, back from a four-game injury absence, contributed 21 points and 11 rebounds.Remember how the Nuggets simply dominated the Pacers in a 140-112 win over in London on Jan. 12?
“This game felt very similar to London,” Pacers coach Nate McMillan said Friday night after the loss.
The Pacers yielded 30-plus points in all four quarters. They trailed by as many as 23, and despite a 19-point hold through three quarters, they cut it to five, 113-108, with 1:47 left after Paul George drained one of his four shots on the night from range.
George, a four-time All-star, got in rhythm early and scored six of the team’s first eight points. He had 11 points total through three quarters.
Then it was clear, once again, he had had enough.
George scored 16 of his team-high 27 points in the final frame on 5-of-7 shooting. It was as if he thought, “Well, if I don’t do anything nobody else will.” And so he took over.
“I always do,” he said of having to shoulder the load with this year’s team. “From start to finish. But, it just seems when I go off, I’m looked at as the ball stopper or the ball (hog). I get labeled as that. Within games I try to move the ball, get others involved. And when that doesn’t work, that’s when I go on as a lone wolf.”
I can’t remember George ever being called a ball hog by fans or media. We all understand this team’s success, the way its built, relies — and too heavily — on George. They need balance, but they haven’t been able to find it due to roster construction and inconsistencies.
When asked if he was labeled that from the outside or in the locker room, George, with C.J. Miles and Aaron Brooks just a few chairs away, responded with “No comment,” as he dried off his beard with a brown bath towel.
This has all been a lot at once for George. Previous (and current labels) include top scorer, top defender, captain, and All-Star.
On top of that, he’s had to add leader, orchestrator, and voice of the team. He doesn’t have a veteran presence like David West to serve as the leader or George Hill as the orchestrator. This team doesn’t have a vocal guy, so that’s been forced on him as well.
At this point of the season, through 72 games (36-36), rotations should be locked in and urgency shouldn’t be an issue with a playoff spot not guaranteed. Only it is an issue. That’s what every guy in the locker room pointed to.
“I would have liked to see my entire team play with that aggressiveness [that Paul did in the fourth quarter], McMillan said. “That’s the aggressiveness that you have to come out with. We put up a 42-point quarter in that fourth quarter. … We waited until the fourth quarter to display that.
“It’s a mindset that you come out and approach the game with. This time of the season, we got to trust that everyone in that locker room is going to come and do that job, and that they’re going to bring aggressive play. That didn’t happen tonight.”
“It’s the urgency,” George added. “We decided to play late, really as a reaction of being embarrassed with what was going on as a group.”
How, though, with so much still on the line?
“Not sure,” he repeated three times. “That’s a question I can’t answer.”
George sounded like a guy that was resigned to the limitations of this team as currently constructed, and he would be embarrassed if they fall out of playoff contention.
“We just got to understand where we’re at,” he said, obviously frustrated. “That’s all it comes down to. … We don’t need no motivational speeches; we don’t need none of that. It’s at hand. The job that we got to do is make the playoffs and win games. That’s it.”
The Nuggets outscored the Pacers by 32 at the foul line, sinking 40-of-43 attempts. They won the glass (46 to 39), scored more points in the paint (52 to 46), and never trailed.
Thad Young: “The way we start off games — we can’t continue to do that. We start off passive and we don’t do the things that we’re supposed to do, which is be aggressive and be ready at all times. Until that happens, we are not going to win games.
“It’s very concerning. Everybody in this room should be concerned, especially the way the playoff race is.”
The Pacers dropped to seventh in the East after losing in Boston on Wednesday. They remain there after this home loss to Denver and they hold a one-game lead on Miami with 10 games to be played. Five at home, five on the road. Miami will play six of their final 10 games on the road.
Coach McMillan says he continues to consider alternative lineups. A calf injury suffered by Glenn Robinson III has caused more shuffling. He’s expected out for at least two weeks. “I’m going to have to look at that because our second unit now is extremely small with Aaron Brooks, Monta (Ellis), and (Rodney) Stuckey playing the one, two, and three.”
Team chemistry has been something they have been seeking since late September. President Larry Bird changed coaches, promoting McMillan, and then brought in six new players. But to have those issues and to lack togetherness — to steal a buzzword from Frank Vogel — with just 10 games left is a red flag.
“It’s been a weird, weird season altogether,” said Teague, who added 21 points and eight assists. “Very, very weird. Guys are just trying to jell and get used to each other and then injuries come into play.
“This is just a bad loss. At home, we didn’t come out to play.”
Up next, the Pacers host the Philadelphia 76ers, who won in Chicago Friday night, on Sunday (6:00 pm).