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Pacers off to sluggish start again

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Examining the wreckage of Monday’s Game 1 implosion, Lance Stephenson found someone else to blame for the Indiana Pacers’ collapse other than Roy Hibbert.

He blamed himself.

“I think it starts with me. I think I came out soft,” Stephenson said in the aftermath of a 102-96 Eastern Conference Semifinals defeat against the Washington Wizards, which for the second time in the playoffs has deposited the top-seeded Pacers in an early hole.

“I have to come out with energy and get my guys going,” Stephenson said. “I blame this game on me.”

Candid self-critiques notwithstanding, the Pacers have more than one player to blame for blowing home-court advantage, which they have now done three times in the postseason.

Hibbert is a good place to start.

In the latest in a series of disappearing acts, the 7-foot-2, 290-pound center was, in a word, awful. He had no points and no rebounds in 18 minutes and, as a consequence, provided no counterpunch to Washington’s imposing frontcourt of Marcin Gortat and Nene.

Hibbert finished with two blocks and five fouls and left frustrated teammates, who in recent weeks have stood by their All-Start center, wondering when or if he will be of any help moving forward.

“He’s got to be part of the fight,” said David West, who was pretty much Indiana’s only Game 1 frontcourt force with 15 points and 12 rebounds. “He’s got to be part of this thing for us to go anywhere.”

Paul George offered a similar sentiment but in a softer tone.

“We’re still with him through this process. He’s going to find a way through,” said George, who had 18 points but was a dismal 4 of 17 from the field. “We need him now, but I have faith that along the way he’s going to find himself.”

But time might not be on the Pacers’ side, with the home-court edge now belonging to fifth-seeded Washington. Game 2 is tonight in Bankers Life House. A virtual must-win, a lift from their All-Star center would go a long way in reaching the objective.

“I got to come out and be aggressive. I got to be a different Roy Hibbert than I have been,” said Hibbert, who has gone scoreless in three of his past four games. “I think what’s most important for me is (to) play aggressive and stay out of foul trouble.”

But again, Hibbert isn’t the only source of concern. Rebounding is another. Perimeter defense yet another.

Incredibly, Hibbert and backup center Ian Mahinmi combined for no rebounds. The result was 53-36 rebounding advantage for the Wizards, who converted 17 offensive rebounds into 19 second-chance points.

By comparison, the Pacers scored five second-chance points on six offensive boards.

An equally glaring problem was defending the three-point line. Washington made 10 of 16 behind the arc, including a 6 of 6 performance by forward Trevor Ariza on his way to 22 points. Star guard Bradley Beal was 5 of 6 on threes and finished with a game-high 25 points.

Indiana’s across-the-board struggles were eerily reminiscent of first-round Atlanta series, which the Hawks nearly won by virtue of three-point shooting, second-chance baskets, poor Pacer’s offense and little or no production from Hibbert.

“It just brings our guard up that we can’t put ourselves in these predicaments, can’t put ourselves in these corners. We should have learned from the first series,” George said. “It’s going to be hard, going to be a tough series for us, but we can’t allow ourselves to be put in these holes.

“We have to get off to good starts in games and in the series.”

On that front, Stephenson leads the way. Or so he says.

Although the Pacers’ came up short in multiple Game 1 categories, the fiery but quirky guard took the blame for the loss. He had 12 points and six rebounds but was 4 of 13 from the field with four turnovers — a mixed line that in of itself was hardly Indiana’s downfall but perhaps emblematic of a collective effort that, at the moment, is not exactly championship-caliber.

“We have to bring energy,” Stephenson said. “We have to be better on defense. We’ve got to be confident on the offensive end. We have to box out. ... I feel like I didn’t bring the energy that I normally bring.

“(I have to) just be aggressive, get rebounds, push it, make smart plays for my teammates, just getting everybody involved.”

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