How the Pacers built a 23-point lead then gave up 24 consecutive points to lose opener
CHARLOTTE – The Indiana Pacers were hot, until they were not. Their defense was stout, until down and out.
If it sounds hard to make sense of their opening night in the NBA, it was.
The Pacers played beautiful basketball in the first, second and fourth quarters. They were downright ugly in the third.
“This is a league that’s getting tougher and tougher,” Rick Carlisle said after the first game of his second Pacers head coaching tenure. “Margins for error are slim, top to bottom.”
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Doesn’t get much slimmer than it was Wednesday:
Charlotte Hornets 123, Pacers 122.
The Pacers had a 75-point first half, led by 23 in the third quarter and fell behind by 10 in the fourth. Then they reclaimed a three-point lead with less than three minutes left.
Charlotte’s Gordon Hayward banked in a 3-pointer to tie the score at 116. That play, as much as any, symbolized a lost opportunity in a coming-out party for Pacers rookie Chris Duarte.
After Hayward missed on a driving layup with six seconds left and the Hornets behind by one, Duarte nearly grabbed the ball. It would have been fitting end to a night in which Duarte scored 27 points, most ever by a Pacers rookie in a debut.
“He wishes he had come out with that last rebound,” Carlisle said. “That would have been the game.”
Instead, P.J. Washington grabbed it and was fouled. His two free throws returned the lead to the Hornets, 123-122.
Domantas Sabonis missed a contested 10-footer that would have won it for the Pacers as time expired. Not that it should have come to that. Sabonis' 33 points and 15 rebounds were also wasted.
After 19 months of few or no fans, the Spectrum Center crowd of 15,521 gave the Hornets a buzz.
"The crowd got into it, which was just a lot of fun to have a crowd back and to play in front of a crowd and to come back and now, they’re chanting for us," Hayward said. "On defense, they’re giving us energy. It was a wild game to be down 20-something, come all the way back."
Pregame concern with Hayward, a 12th-year pro from Butler, was his conditioning after a siege against COVID-19. However, the Brownsburg native scored 14 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter, 26 in the final three quarters.
“They put the ball in his hands, and he was able to close the game for them, possession after possession,” Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon said.
After the Pacers built leads of 82-59 and 84-63, they surrendered a 24-0 spurt fueled by LaMelo Ball. Before the game, Carlisle called Ball “a lightning rod."
The Pacers succumbed to electrocution.
Ball finished with 31 points (7-of-9 3s), nine rebounds and seven assists. Oddly, he played fewer than seven minutes of the fourth quarter and was limited to three points.
Brogdon (13), Sabonis (nine) and Duarte (eight) combined for 30 of the Pacers’ 34 fourth-quarter points.
During the 24-0 collapse, the Pacers become “tentative,” Carlisle said. They committed five turnovers and shot 0-of-9 from the field in a swoon lasting little more than six minutes. Six misses were 3-pointers, leading to long rebounds and Hornet run-outs.
Brogdon and Sabonis said the Pacers were rushing on offense.
“We were taking quick, one-pass shots,” Sabonis said. “We weren’t playing our game.”
Duarte played his game, and it was one for the record books.
Only 10 rookies have scored more in their first game, and six are in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame: Wilt Chamberlain (43), Maurice Stokes (32) Isiah Thomas (31), Allen Iverson (30), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (29) and Walt Bellamy (29).
Previous Pacers rookie record was 24 by Roger Brown in 1967.
“I never played in front of a crowd like that. But I felt great,” Duarte said. “That’s what I work for, moments like that, you know. And I’m ready.”
Duarte sank successive 3s to end the first quarter, the second one as time expired. He was challenged on his next 3-point attempt but adjusted in midair, squared up and made that one, too. He made two 3s consecutively in the fourth quarter to push the Pacers ahead, 116-113, and finished 6-of-9 from the arc.
Duarte said he twisted his ankle during the game, calling it “a little bruise,” but had the ankle re-taped and soon returned. If not for one possession, he would be the theme and not the game's reversal.
“We’ve got to be able to play through some runs like that,” Carlisle said. “It’s as simple as that.”
The Pacers play at Washington on Friday night before returning for their home opener Saturday night against Miami.
Contact IndyStar reporter David Woods at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.