20130429-135523.jpgThe Pacers may very well return home from this Western Conference road trip with the same 3-2 record as their last such venture.

Given the extent of the Lakers’ current state of disrepair, the Pacers had better win Tuesday night. It’s likely you could’ve pulled five performers out of the Grammy crowd at the Staples Center Sunday night and they’d beat the current Lakers lineup. Certainly, they’d be more worth watching.

But the feeling about these two road trips could not be more different.

On the first one, the Pacers made a statement, being the Clippers and Spurs and narrowly losing in Portland. Aside from the blowout in Oklahoma City in the fifth game in seven nights, the Pacers were competitive, impressive and encouraging.

Not so this time around.

The trip started well, with a solid victory over Golden State. Since then, however, the wheels have come off.

>> In Phoenix, they allowed season-highs for points overall (124) as well as points in a half (62 in both the first and second) and basically got blown out by last year’s bench, as Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee both looked infinitely better than they should have.

>> In Sacramento, against a bad Kings team missing its two best players (DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Guy), they gave up 60 in the first half, fell behind by 17 and needed a huge break – a very shaky foul call that allowed Paul George to tie it with a four-point play in the closing seconds of regulation – to force overtime and escape with a five-point win.

>> And then in Denver, against another bad team on a three-game losing streak without one of its best players (Danilo Gallinari), the Pacers hung around for a whole but wound up losing by 13.

Given they are one fortunate whistle away from a three-game losing streak against bad teams, it’s safe to say this is the worst stretch of the season by the Pacers.

And it all has begun with defense. Since the Golden State game, none of the guards – including Paul George – has defended with any passion or energy. Green and Goran Dragic combined for 44 and hit 14 of 23 shots in Phoenix; Marcus Thornton and Isaiah Thomas combined for 80 points and hit 29 of 58 in Sacramento; Ty Lawson, Nate Robinson and Randy Foye combined for 39 on 16-of-33 in Denver.

Timofey Mozgov had a big game against the Pacers Saturday night in Denver. (Photo: Icon SMI)

Timofey Mozgov had a big game against the Pacers Saturday night in Denver. (Photo: Icon SMI)

With the guards routinely getting torched on the perimeter, the interior defense has been forced to react, rather than hold ground, and the result has been foul trouble. Centers Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi have combined for 28 fouls and 28 points in the last three games. Meanwhile, J.J. Hickson and Timofey Mozgov – yes, THAT Mozgov – combined for 29 points and 20 boards in Denver.

It’s easy to point fingers at the bench, which has struggled as both Danny Granger (9-for-23 on the trip) and Luis Scola (11-for-33) have slumped, but there has been precious little energy from the starters out of the gate. The Pacers have been outscored by 42 points in the first halves of the last three games, and that isn’t all on the bench.

For whatever reason, the Pacers’ defense hasn’t traveled. They allow 83.7 points at home, but 96.6 on the road. The 12.9 disparity is the widest in the league.

They’ve dropped six of their last 10 road games, allowing an average of 100.9 in the process. Nine times this season they’ve surrendered triple digits; eight of those have come on the road including the last three.

How bad has the defense been? The Pacers scored 40 points in the third quarter in Denver, a season high. And still they trailed by 10 entering the fourth.

Yes, they still have the best record in the East (34-9), but their lead over Miami is just 2½ games, and it was just about this time last year the Heat went off.

After a 102-89 victory over the Heat on Feb. 1, the Pacers (28-19) were a scant three games behind the Heat (29-14). A few days later, Miami launched a 27-game win streak, second-longest in NBA history, won 37 of its final 39 games and wound up 16½ games ahead of the Pacers.

“To tell you the truth, we talk amongst ourselves, and we feel like that team can really go on a 20-game winning streak at any point in time, so it’s just a matter of time (before) they do that,” Hibbert told Sam Amick of USA TODAY. “So we try to stay as many games ahead as possible.”

On that, and most every other level, the Pacers have hurt themselves on this trip by letting golden opportunities slip through their hands. Prior to the trip, the Pacers had lost just two games all season to sub-.500 teams. Taking care of business was one of their most compelling traits.

The only statements they’ve made on this trip end with question marks.


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