Naysayer: Solving The Pacers’ Late-Game Collapse Problem

This season’s team showed that they had the grit and talent to go far but lacked critical experience, leading to repeatedly snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Photography by Tony Valainis/Indianapolis Monthly

It’s not like we all expected the Pacers to beat the Celtics. We were hopeful. But the way the Pacers lost three of the four games makes one wonder about the ability of this team to get back to the conference finals next year in its current form.

Three games—all within grasp—slipped away in literally the final seconds. Convert on just one late shot, get the ball inbounded, and this could have been a series that separated this team from all others. But here we are, and the season is over.

Don’t get me wrong, I was so pleased by the win over the Knicks. I had high hopes coming into the Celtics series. After all, the Celtics were without star center Kristaps Porziņģis, and Indiana was at full strength. But time after time, the Celtics performed in crunch time, and the Pacers got crunched by crunch time.

This is not to say that fans and the city of Indianapolis shouldn’t be excited about the this team’s possibilities. They accomplished more than what even experienced pundits had predicted. The Knicks series brought back the “Boom Baby” mentality and swagger the city felt the last time we got this far. There was a “Why not us?” attitude going around, especially during the first Celtics game when the fans thought we had it clinched. Even with the Game 2 blowout, the thought still prevailed. But the collapse in Game 3 sealed the Pacers’ fate.

Still, there was hope.

Experience was the one element the Pacers couldn’t manufacture. In nearly every game, they rushed through the final moments, creating bad shots and turnovers when they needed them the least. It was not just one player who gave up the ball; it was a combined team effort. All-Star Tyrese Haliburton had two deadly, unforced turnovers in the first game that turned the tide. Guard Andrew Nembhard’s outstanding play even came with a couple costly turnovers in Games 3 and 4, when he fell down driving the ball into traffic. T.J. McConnell wasted a great feed and missed an open layup that turned into a 5-point swing, which contributed to turning the fourth game into a loss. So there is enough culpability to go around, but that really isn’t the reason they were swept in such a fashion.

But this is exactly what needed to happen for the players and coaches to move forward. This slew of poor late-game plays shows where the biggest challenges lie and what the Pacers need to do to get to the finals again and be an elite team. The talent is there. The leadership is in place.

This offseason should be interesting. Even though the loss just happened, rumors are filling up the airwaves. To remain at this level and move forward, the team needs to re-sign Pascal Siakam, who is in the last year of his four-year $136.9 million contract. He will be a highly sought-after free agent this summer. This must be priority one for the team.

Jalen Smith is another player the Pacers need to re-sign. Even though he didn’t play much in the playoffs, only getting six minutes per game off the bench, he was a solid contributor all season, averaging just under 10 points and 5.5 rebounds.

Already, there are rumors floating around that the Pacers could be involved in a blockbuster trade to bring Paul George back into the fold. The Clippers would receive Aaron Nesmith, Jarace Walker, and McConnell, plus a second-round pick in 2025 and ’28. This would be a great trade for the Pacers but one that I would personally hate. I love McConnell’s game. He’s one of those players you want on your team because of his tenacity and super quickness. He sticks his face in every play, though in Game 4, he got it smacked pretty hard. But the beautiful thing about him is that he bounces right back. He’s tough.

The Pacers might also need to look at free agent acquisitions. Three names that pop up are Mikal Bridges of the New Jersey Nets, Alex Caruso of the Chicago Bulls, and Andrew Wiggins of the Golden State Warriors. These players would bring some experience level to help with the late-game collapse. Whatever happens, it’s exciting because the needle is pointing up no matter what happens.

Indiana has been treated to some great basketball this past season, with two teams making the final four in their respective leagues. Looking into the crystal ball, next year will not disappoint either, because Indiana University has had a great recruiting and portal year that should put them back in the national spotlight, alongside Purdue and the Pacers. Another team going through a rough patch that they’ll hopefully overcome is the Fever. Caitlin Clark and team will be a year in—a year that may make all the difference in the world.

So buckle up, Indiana. Some serious hoops are coming this way!