Paul George and the Pacers have lost their balance heading down the stretch. (Photo: Jessica Hoffman/Pacers)

Paul George and the Pacers have lost their balance heading down the stretch. (Photo: Jessica Hoffman/Pacers)

20130429-135523.jpgTwo moments, one early, one late, defined the game, the moment and perhaps the season.

Late in the first quarter, Roy Hibbert started to get it going, scoring twice in a row, including a bucket that drew Tim Duncan’s second foul. After a timeout to consider the options, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich elected to roll the dice leave Duncan in the game.

The only time Hibbert touched the ball on the next three possessions was to pass it after setting a high screen. Those three trips ended like this: missed jump shot, missed jump shot, missed jump shot. The Spurs scored the final eight points of the first and the first seven of the second to take a 17-point lead.

You only get so many opportunities to gain the upper hand against the Spurs, and the Pacers frittered away what turned out to be their best one, and it turned out to be their last. Blame Frank Vogel for not attacking a potential weakness, blame Hibbert for not aggressively backing down Duncan and commanding the ball, blame his teammates for lacking the awareness to seize that advantage. You’d be right on all counts.

Late in the third quarter, not long after Stephenson had missed another layup by making it theatrical, he and George Hill had a heated verbal exchange during a timeout huddle and teammates had to step in to separate them.

In the interest of transparency, I did not witness this; it was reported by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.

In the interest of fairness, I must also admit that, if it qualified as breaking news every time a teammate got upset with Stephenson, ESPN would need to create another channel for the reporting. But in the context of the most lopsided home loss of the Vogel era, its importance was justifiably magnified.

Those two moments were it, in a nutshell: opportunity lost, frustration unrestrained.

When the 103-77 drubbing was complete, after the echoes of the boos that rained down from the restless sellout crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse had faded, all that remained was the chin-up defiance from Vogel and the whispered submission from the locker room.

You know, the usual.

The disparate tones reflected the lack of coalescence within this imploding team.

“They are playing well as anybody in the world right now,” Vogel said, alluding to San Antonio’s franchise-record 18-game win streak. “You have to be perfect to beat the Spurs. I think we’re trying to play together, trying to move the ball.

“I think we’re still us, we’re just not playing well right now.”

The players, on the other hand, told a much different tale.

“We’re at the bottom in terms of how far you can fall,” said David West. “We’ve bottomed out as a group, and we have to regroup and have to answer some questions about ourselves and our identity.”

“Their togetherness really showed,” said Paul George. “That’s where they beat us. That was a team that’s all together playing as one, the team that we were to start the year off.”

“It sucks. It’s awful,” said Roy Hibbert. “We’ve been in a spiral, now we’re spiraling and we’ve been splintering a little bit and I don’t know.”

The facts are these: the Pacers have lost three in a row, setting a franchise record by scoring fewer than 80 points in each. They have lost five of six, and their .377 shooting percentage Monday night was the Pacers’ best in that span.

The flakes that started falling in February have become a full-fledged avalanche that threatens to bury what just might’ve been the most promising season in franchise history.

After 152 days at the top of the Eastern Conference, the Pacers (.693) slipped percentage points behind Miami (.699), and you know they’re loving this on South Beach.

“Good for them. We don’t deserve it,” Hibbert said. “Whoever we see in the playoffs, we’ll see, but we’ve got to figure things out.”

Since losing Game 7 in Miami last June, the Pacers have openly coveted that No. 1 seed. It showed spunk, confidence and a little arrogance but as long as they maintained what appeared to be a firm grip on the position, it seemed as if the ploy aimed at keeping the team motivated through the long grind of an NBA regular season had one its job.

Now that they have lost it, with just seven games left in the regular season, the Pacers seem to have lost themselves in the process.

“That’ll be a reality check for us, to be No. 1, really controlling our whole destiny,” said George, who scored 16 points but committed five turnovers and shot 5-for-13 in a performance that has become his template of late. “This is the time when we could’ve been having guys resting and really enjoying being in the position we were in. And now we’re playing down to the wire.

“It’s tough, it’s tough but hopefully it lights a fuel under us and we’ll have a better understanding of what to do.”

If that fire hasn’t sparked yet, you have to wonder what it will take.



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