Pacers look forward to fresh start after winless week

CHICAGO, Ill. — The Pacers were outscored 33 points from behind the arc. They yielded a franchise-tying 18 3-pointers from the Chicago Bulls. Lottery pick Lauri Markkanen poured in a season-high 32 points and seven rebounds, and Nikola Mirotic sank eight 3s — one more than the Pacers made — and finished with 28 points.

All of that, and the Bulls’ perfect shooting at the foul line (15 for 15), contributed to the Pacers’ third consecutive loss, 119-107 from the United Center on a cold and snowy Friday night.

“We got to get up on guys,” Nate McMillan stressed afterwards. “We knew that this team has been improving over the last couple of weeks, part of it was due to how hard they play defensively, good ball movement. But they’ve been shooting the three extremely well. We just did not challenge their threes.”

That was the theme all night. There were several times where the Pacers clawed their way back to within single-digits … and cut it to seven, twice in fact, but both times the Bulls answered.

Like at the beginning of the fourth period, where they scored 12 of the first 13 points — and that was it.

“I think the biggest thing is just having mental lapses throughout the games,” said Pacers guard Darren Collison, who matched his season high with 30 points in 40 minutes. “It’s causing us to lose focus. Whenever it seems like we’re trying to hit a stride or hit a run, they make a play and either get a three or something that’s uncontested.”

“The effort was there some times, it just wasn’t there for a full 48 minutes. … We got to be better, but we can’t keep saying it. At some point, we got to turn this thing around and go out there and just do it.”

A sellout crowd (21,178) saw the Bulls win for the 10th time in 12 games.

This loss concludes the worst week of the season for the Blue & Gold (19-17). Three losses, the latter two to teams without winning records, Dallas and Chicago.

The Bulls, though, are on a hot streak. They’ve won 10 of their last dozen games after losing by two points in Indy three weeks ago (despite a 17-point first half lead).

That coincides with the return of Nikola Mirotic, who caught fire and got in a groove early off the bench.

“They just were teeing ’em up,” said Thad Young, who had 10 points and seven rebounds — and had the challenge of defending bigs who were sinking 3-pointers. “Every time we went to tag or help or just let them get free, it’s like they didn’t even see us coming back. They didn’t hesitate at all, they just shot. And they made a lot of them tonight.”

The Bulls (13-22) knew that the Pacers, who had won three straight in the series, ranked seventh in first quarter scoring and so they made a point to pounce on them early. And they did, taking a 37-27 leading into the second frame.

“That was a big key to tonight’s game,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said after their seventh consecutive win at home. “They’re a team that gets out of the gate very quickly.” Well, sometimes…

The Pacers were without Victor Oladipo (sore right knee) for the second game in a row. He is doubtful to play on Sunday against Minnesota as they want to see the swelling go down in his knee.

For the rest of the team, this is another growth point. They were the surprise team that was in a comfortable groove just last week, five games above .500 (19-14) and slotted fourth in the East.

A good sign came in the locker room postgame where several Pacers spent time going over what just went on. This was more than 10 minutes after the game had concluded. Collison talked with several guys, Young to Domantas Sabonis, and later Myles Turner with T.J. Leaf.

“Right now we’re just not the same team we was about ten games ago,” Young, a co-captain with Turner, added. “Hopefully we can get back to that and get back to doing what we were doing when we were winning games, and having fun, and just playing basketball.”

They need to do a better job of laying the first blow, setting the tone (even without Vic), and pressing on opponents. Lance Stephenson, who was one rebound short of his second double-double of the season with 19 points and nine rebounds, can play a big part in that. So many times we’ve seen this team fall behind and, to their credit, they’ve impressively fought back despite several first-half deficits of 15-plus points.

It starts from the jump in setting the tone.

“The guys on the floor have got to get it done,” McMillan emphasized.

“It sounds cliche but we have to stay together,” Collison said of where the team goes from here. “… Everybody has their bad stretch [throughout a season]. We’ve yet to have our stretch; I think we’re hitting it right now. So, we got to stay mentally strong, like Nate said, and continue to stay together and who knows, one win may get us back on track. And that’s what it’s about.”

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