Opinion: Pacers doomed by historically bad third quarter in Game 1 loss to Celtics
BOSTON — Domantas Sabonis has the ball in the lane, and he’s all alone. He shoots and misses. He gets the rebound and moves closer to the basket. Shoots again. Misses again.
This is halftime of the Indiana Pacers’ 84-74 loss to the Boston Celtics on Sunday in their 2019 NBA playoffs opener — the final seconds of halftime — and the court is empty except for Sabonis. Both teams are at their bench, moments from starting the second half, but Sabonis wants to make his last shot before joining the rest of his Indiana teammates on the sideline. Takes him five tries, but he finally hits one.
Bear in mind, Sabonis was seventh in the NBA and set a team record this season by making 59 percent of his shots from the floor. If that’s how it looked on the Pacers’ offensive end as halftime ended, you can guess how it looked down there when the third quarter began. It looked like the Pacers trying 19 shots in the quarter and missing 17. It looked like the Pacers, a franchise that gave us eight points in nine seconds in the 1995 playoffs, giving us eight points in 12 minutes here in 2019.
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It looked like the Celtics outscoring the Pacers 26-8 in the third quarter, turning a seven-point deficit into a blowout victory.
How it sounded in the Pacers’ locker room after the game was done? Sounded hopeful. Sounded almost positive. Sounded like veteran point guard Darren Collison telling a TV reporter, "We just have to stay mentally strong," and when I walked over to ask him how, exactly, they will do that, this is how Collison answered:
"Just look at how the game was played," he was saying. "We were right there. It’s not like we couldn’t play with that team."
This wasn’t just Collison finding the bright side. This was everyone in that locker room, and not just publicly for the sake of the media. In one corner of the locker room, Sabonis was sitting between Myles Turner and Bojan Bogdanovic. That’s the Pacers’ top three active scorers right there — Bogdanovic is second to the injured Victor Oladipo at 18 points per game, followed by Sabonis (14.1) and Turner (13.3) — and they had just scored a combined 24 points on 9-for-26 shooting.
And they were huddled together, talking about what went wrong, and deciding that there was just too many "missed shots" and also that the Pacers "missed too many (expletive) free throws."
And they’re right. No, really. In the most glaring example you’ll ever see of the NBA being, as people like to say, "a make-or-miss league," the Pacers made just 28-of-84 shots from the floor (33.3 percent). They missed nine of their 21 free throws. Do that on a night when the other team is scoring 120 points, and you’re going to lose by 40 or 50. Do that in a game where the other team can’t shoot a whole lot better (the Celtics shot 36.4 percent from the floor), and while you might not have much of a chance — the Celtics dominated Game 1 after halftime — you have reason to hope for Game 2 on Wednesday.
Well, the Pacers think they have reason to hope. Am I telling them they’re wrong? Not any more than I’ve already written in recent weeks, that the Celtics have a lot more talent than the Pacers, that the Celtics had no business just barely edging out Indiana for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, that the Pacers’ only shot at beating Boston is to turn this series ugly. All of that is true, but so is this, and I’ll cede the floor to Pacers veteran Wesley Matthews:
"We had more assists (than Boston)," Matthew said. "We had more offensive rebounds. We had more steals. We played defense good enough. We just didn’t make enough shots."
Point of fact, the Pacers were worse than merely that in the third quarter. To do what the Pacers did Sunday, setting a new season-low for points in a quarter, any quarter, they had to do more than miss shots. Though Lord have mercy, did they miss shots. They missed their first nine, five 3-pointers and several long 2s, and kept missing even as they moved closer, kind of like Sabonis at halftime.
But they also turned the ball over five times, like when Collison dribbled it off his foot out of bounds, dropped to a knee to tie his shoelace, and raised his arms in dismay as the Celtics quickly inbounded the ball and headed the other way. And when Matthews found himself isolated on Kyrie Irving 15 feet from the basket, turned his back on the smaller Irving to go to work, and realized he couldn’t do much without the ball; Irving had simply taken it from him. And when Bogdanovic ran around Sabonis for a handoff, but Sabonis’ point-blank pass was grabbed by Marcus Morris.
After the game, the Pacers were positive — utterly convinced — they can play with the Celtics.
"If you add all the other quarters up," Thaddeus Young said, "we win. That third quarter is what killed us."
They were being upbeat, all of them, and it was a little eerie. Like, brainwashed material. What did Nate McMillan or somebody else say to make the Pacers so upbeat after scoring a season-low 74 points — 15 below their previous 2018-19 low — in a 10-point loss to the Celtics?
But then I heard it. The sound of reality, of comprehension. The sound of honesty.
It came from Collison after he was finished talking with the media. He was still sitting at his locker, not going anywhere for a while with both his 31-year-old feet soaking in a tub of ice and his left knee heavily wrapped in ice as well.
"Ugh," Collison said.
More like, groaned. He did it so loudly, I looked to see if Collison was OK, and was startled to see him keeling over to his left. But then I saw it. I saw why he was leaning over, his head barely a foot above the ground. He was reading something lying on the floor. A piece of paper.
The stat sheet from Game 1.
Gregg Doyel is a columnist for the Indianpaolis Star, part of the USA TODAY Network.
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