The good news for Pacers fans is that things can't get much worse than this. The team's month-long tailspin seems to have finally ended with a crash landing in Indiana last night. The Pacers lost 107-88 to the Atlanta Hawks while putting on a miserable performance that featured just 23 first-half points, a mass benching of the starting lineup, and a disgruntled star player.
Things got dire in a hurry. With six minutes left to play in the first quarter, the sluggish Pacers found themselves down 17-3, at which point head coach Frank Vogel called a 20-second timeout and yanked his entire starting lineup off the floor. The starters would get back into the game in the second quarter, but by the time the half ended, the Pacers were down 55-23. If anyone ever asks you to show them the low point of the Pacers' 2014 season, just show them this image:
But a total on-court meltdown isn't complete without the inclusion of a grumpy star. That's where Roy Hibbert, who played just nine first-half minutes and rode the bench for the entire second half, comes in. Hibbert spent the rest of the game planted at the end of the bench, looking surly and disinterested. The Indianapolis Star describes the scene:
Hibbert sat near the end of the padded seats, next to Andrew Bynum, the inactive 7-footer with a return date nowhere in sight. During timeouts, players gathered over Vogel, who was busy explaining the solutions drawn up on his white board, and Hibbert stayed on the fringe of the huddle. At one point, Hibbert stared up at the scoreboard, his attention taken by a humorous "King of the Hill" sketch featuring teammates George Hill and Solomon Hill, as Vogel addressed the team. Hibbert then gazed into the stands and turned to find his seat. Several Pacers said they never noticed Hibbert's body language on the bench.
After the game, Hibbert refused to speak to the media, grumbling "I got nothing to say" before exiting the locker room. Vogel explained that he had been considering giving Hibbert a night off before the game off anyway, and that the benching was just an on-the-fly decision to get his big man some rest. David West, on the other hand, speculated that Hibbert's benching was a tactical decision, as he was having trouble guarding the Hawks' frontcourt combination of Pero Antic and Paul Millsap. Pacers fans should be praying that Vogel's explanation is the truest one; a supposed title contender getting undone by Pero Antic and Paul Millsap isn't a good look.
This bottoming out has been brewing for some time, of course. As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote last week, the Pacers' offense has been just a notch better than the 76ers' over the last two months, which is to say that Indiana's offense is barely NBA-caliber right now. And the worst part is that there is no one deficiency to pinpoint and fix. Paul George and David West have regressed, Evan Turner has been a terrible fit, and Hibbert's been groaning about "selfish dudes" on the team.
George's backslide has been especially troublesome, as the team doesn't really have a point guard and relies on George to be a dynamic player who can score at any time. That works out fine when George is playing like a top-five player in the league, but not when he looks like a worse version of Nic Batum. This is a team that has to try really hard in order to score, and as SB Nation's Mike Prada points out, the Pacers are currently failing to execute the most basic of plays. In short, the Pacers just suck at basketball right now.
Last night's loss also handed the first seed in the Eastern Conference over to the Miami Heat. But at this point, that might be a bonus for the Pacers. The Atlanta Hawks currently occupy the eight seed.