INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - The Indiana Pacers entered Sunday's matchup against the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers with a chance to send a message. That quickly changed as MVP candidate Joel Embiid was ruled out a few hours before tipoff.
Entering this game, the 76ers held just an 0-4 record in games played without Embiid in the lineup. The expectations shifted to the Pacers needing to achieve an expected win and not allow a short-handed Philadelphia team to catch them by surprise.
The difference in impact for the 76ers without Embiid on the floor was quickly apparent. Philadelphia got off to a rough offensive start -- scoring just 18 points in the first quarter on 7-of-21 (33.3%) shooting from the door. Meanwhile, the Pacers posted a respectable 28 points.
Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons began to heat up for the 76ers and contributed half of the 76ers' 36 points in the second quarter. The Pacers kept pace with 35 points of their own -- preserving a 63-54 advantage at halftime.
There are 48 minutes in NBA basketball games for a reason. For about 34 of them, the Pacers appeared ready to put the 76ers away when they established a game-high 20-point lead.
"That's the game," TJ McConnell said. "You can't just play three quarters and expect a team to go away – especially a team like that. Obviously, (it's) really disappointing. But, you have to move on."
It seemed almost immediately as the Pacers achieved their greatest lead of the night, the 76ers began mounting their comeback. Indiana saw their lead get reduced to 14-points entering the fourth quarter as Philadelphia used a 6-0 run to end the third period.
For about four minutes of game action, Indiana maintained a double-figure lead early in the fourth period with primarily their bench unit on the court after previously allowing a run to end the previous frame. That did not last, and it went south in a hurry for the Pacers.
The 76ers changed up their 2-3 zone and began becoming aggressive in their approach. The Paces' big men were almost completely neutralized offensively -- forcing the guards to attack against long, athletic wing defenders like Ben Simmons and Matisse Thybulle atop the zone. That led to Philadelphia mounting a 21-2 run.
"That was disruptive," Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren said about the 76ers' zone defense. "We didn't make a shot out of it. I don't think we attacked it very well either. They changed the game with it, you have to give them a lot of credit with that.
"The size that they had out there, the length in that thing, so it was good. It was good. Guys kept battling, we just missed them and just let that one go."
It was rough for the Pacers in the fourth quarter as they were held to just 15 points while going 5-of-17 (29.4%) from the field and 1-of-7 (14.3%) from the perimeter. Meanwhile, the 76ers produced a game-high 37 points and did so mostly by going 12-of-19 (63.2%) on two-point attempts and 10-of-13 (76.9%) on free throws.
Failing to limit turnovers has been a problem for the Pacers as of late and that certainly plagued them against the 76ers. In this game, Indiana recorded 17 turnovers with Domantas Sabonis and TJ Mcconnell each having six of their own. This resulted in Philadelphia scoring a total of 25 points off turnovers, specifically, with 15 coming in the final frame.
There was a clear lack of a reliable go-to option offensively for the Pacers in the fourth quarter. Prior to the fourth quarter, Brogdon had 24 points and four assists while Sabonis recorded 21 points, eight rebounds, and three assists. However, Brogdon had just two points in the final period while Sabonis was ultimately held scoreless.
"Just weren't able to get good shots," Brogdon said. "The zone, I think made us hesitant and we missed shots."
With Embiid sidelined, the 76ers received strong offensive contributions from expected contributors like Tobias Harris and Ben Simmons. Harris led all scorers in this game with 26 points while Simmons also contributed 21 points, six rebounds, seven assists, and four steals.
The strong start to the Pacers' season is winding down with recent losses beginning to mount. Indiana has now lost six of their last eight games with some truly difficult matchups coming up on their schedule.
The Pacers return to action on Tuesday when they host an ascending Memphis Grizzlies team.