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Slow starts, like Thursday's vs Timberwolves, holding Indiana Pacers back during key point in season

The Pacers need to start games better

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Pacers found themselves in a situation they are becoming far too familiar with on Thursday night — they were down big less than one quarter into their game.

The Pacers hosted the Minnesota Timberwolves yesterday, and the visitors were missing All-Star forward Karl-Anthony Towns. On top of that absence, star guard Anthony Edwards injured his ankle just seconds into the game, which forced him to the locker room for a few moments. Suddenly, Indiana had an opportunity to build a cushion against a hobbled Wolves team.

Instead, the opposite happened. A few minutes into the action, Minnesota was ahead 10-2. Halfway through the first frame, the blue and gold found themselves down 10 at 16-6. It took less than 10 minutes for the Timberwolves to take a 15-point lead. Even shorthanded, the visitors were dominant to open the action in Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

"First quarter was a dud. We didn't come out with attitude or presence. Dug a big hole. We were poor defensively," Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said after the game. Forward Pascal Siakam agreed. "I think we missed some shots. We had a couple of turnovers... we just didn't get into anything," he shared, noting that things felt slow. "That can't happen."

The Pacers were a bit better for a final 100 or so seconds of the first quarter, but when that period ended they trailed 33-23. They shot 44.4% from the field with five turnovers and couldn't stop Minnesota, even with two offensive forces absent. It was a dreadful opening frame.

For the remaining 36 minutes, the Pacers were the better group. They came all the way back and took the lead on the scoreboard multiple times. It took Edwards heroics in the final minutes to push the Timberwolves over the finish line with a 113-111 win. Indiana was +8 after the opening quarter.

That's when head coach Rick Carlisle believes his team gave this game away early. If they had a better start, they wouldn't have needed to comeback at all — or hold off Edwards' and his incredible clutch play.

"When you start a game as poorly as we did, it leaves so much to chance," Carlisle said.

Teams can be uneven to start games for a variety of reasons. It's problematic every time, but it's a concerning trend for the Pacers because of how frequently it has happened of late. They have doomed themselves with poor first quarter play on multiple occasions in just seven days.

Last Friday, they were in New Orleans to take on the Pelicans. In the first quarter, the Pelicans scored on every possession in which they took a shot, finishing the opening stretch with 48 points. They were ahead by 31 after 13:26 of playing time. For the remaining 34:34, the Pacers outscored the Pelicans 76-72, but they gave themselves no chance to win with their first quarter play. Granted, New Orleans was on fire and making ridiculous shots early in that game. Indiana still should have been better.

Two nights later, the blue and gold were in San Antonio to take on the lowly Spurs, who have won just 20.6% of their games this season. It was the Pacers who looked like the rebuilding team in the opening minutes, falling behind by 12 points early and scoring just 16 points in the first quarter. They lost to San Antonio by double digits despite playing the Spurs to an even draw over the final 40:50 of action.

"Our starting lineup has to do a better job of starting games. It's kind of been a recurring theme," Pacers star point guard Tyrese Haliburton said.

For the season, the Pacers have the 19th best net rating in the NBA in first quarters at -2.1. They get better as games progress, something that comes as a natural result of having tactically-gifted coaching and point guard play. They can adjust as a game takes shape.

But their recent play in the opening frame has been far worse, sitting at a net rating of -3.8 since the All-Star. And with Haliburton struggling somewhat of late, it's tougher to overcome that slippage. The Pacers have to be better to start games.

The team's starting lineup of Haliburton, Andrew Nembhard, Aaron Nesmith, Siakam, and Myles Turner is now -9 for the season. At the All-Star break a few weeks ago, they were +10. They've been struggling since.

Most of that is in the first period, where that five-man unit is -32. They are +23 across the other three periods, including +19 in the third quarter when they are facing off against the opposing team's starting five. The lineup does work throughout significant portions of games, but it hasn't been successful to get the action started.

Maybe that merits a change, but any lineup switch has to not only boost the opening lineup — it also can't make the bench groups worse in a way that offsets those improvements. That's what makes finding a solution difficult.

A tactical answer to the slow starts may not even be needed. It might just be something the Pacers find within themselves. "I don't know... we've got to figure it out. We can't start games like that," Siakam said. "I just thought our energy wasn't great... we've got to be ready."

Whatever is going on, the Pacers need to learn from it and fix it. They have lost three of their last four games despite being in the middle of an important standings race. They need to get some wins.

That requires starting games better. Indiana has to figure out how to fix their early-game play.

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