INDIANAPOLIS — The Pacers reached the top of the Eastern Conference by relying on hard-nosed defense and a power offense.
They’re on the brink of elimination because neither is working.
The eighth-seeded Hawks are on the brink of pulling a stunning upset thanks largely to Indiana’s ineptitude to get it right in the playoffs.
“We didn’t play as well to end the year off, but I just knew at playoff time, this team would come together,” All-Star starter Paul George said. “But you know this team (Atlanta) is a tough matchup. We’ve never rotated this much, we’ve never ran around the court this much.”
They’ve never been in this much trouble, either. Monday night’s 107-97 loss put Indiana in a 3-2 hole and one loss away from becoming just the sixth No. 1 seed in NBA history to lose in the first round.
Two months ago, such an exit seemed inconceivable.
Indiana was the league’s best team over the first half of the season, going 33-8, and was virtually unbeatable at home. George wound up with the third-most votes for the All-Star game, Roy Hibbert was selected as a backup and Lance Stephenson’s fans said he should have made the team, too.
Things changed dramatically after the All-Star break.
The Pacers started having problems with spacing and ball movement, the league’s top-rated defense struggled, tempers flared and they lost that air of invincibility. Evan Turner arrived in a trade and hasn’t blossomed. Indiana is just 13-16 since March 1, and despite winding up with home-court advantage through the conference finals, they haven’t resembled the team that looked destined for a rematch with Miami in the Eastern finals.
Indiana thought the playoffs would give them a fresh start. Instead, the NBA’s best regular-season home team (35-6) has lost two of three games on its own floor.