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What’s next for Pacers? Team offers golden opportunity

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Frank Vogel has four games to figure out the Rubik’s Cube known as the Indiana Pacers.

Then it’s on to the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, where any scenario — inspiring or deflating — can play out.

Tonight’s game at Milwaukee is critical for the Pacers as they desperately attempt to recoup some small portion of their long-lost momentum.

A loss to the lowly Bucks, owners of the NBA’s worst record (14-63), and the concern intensifies for a franchise that has come up short in 12 of its past 19 games by an average of 14.2 points.

Nine of the losses are by double-figure totals; three are by 22 points or more.

Indiana on Sunday treated a sellout crowd of 18,165 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to an unprecedented barrel-scraping complete with 23 first-half points.

That’s a new standard of futility for a franchise that prior to Sunday had taken the court for 3,806 regular-season and 305 playoff games since its 1967 inception.

While Indiana’s offensive and defensive woes aren’t traced to one player’s ineffectiveness, it’s clear Vogel has to find a way to get Roy Hibbert back to his All-Star form. The 7-foot-2 center is averaging 8.9 points during the past nine games. Not surprisingly, seven resulted in Pacers losses.

He played only nine minutes in Sunday’s 107-88 loss to the Hawks, producing goose-egg totals in points, rebounds, blocks and overall effectiveness.

“He’s a 7-2 center who has played every game. With (Atlanta’s) 3-point shooting, we decided to sit him and rest,” Vogel said.

“We just have to keep him encouraged. He wants to play. He’s a competitor. Coach felt like he was a little tired,” starting forward David West added. “We’re all right. I think our energy is coming back. I think we’re pulling for one another. (Hibbert) is fine, and we’re OK.”

Second quarters also have been disastrous for Indiana of late.

Dating back to the 82-71 setback at Memphis on March 22, the Pacers over their past seven losses average 15.7 points in the second.

For sake of comparison, Indiana averaged 18.8 during the second period while posting victories in its first nine games of the regular season and 21.7 during a six-game win streak to close out December.

The Pacers followed Sunday’s 12-point first quarter with an 11-point lemon in the second. Overall, they made 7 of 35 field-goal attempts (.200).

“We’re good. We missed a lot of chippy ones, a lot of shots around the basket,” forward Paul George said. “I thought our execution was great. We shared the ball, we moved the ball. It was just tough to get a rhythm early on. I just thought early on we got into a funk.”

The funk of which George speaks extends beyond one quarter, half or even month.

Starting with a last-second home loss to Golden State on March 4, Indiana is a sub-.500 product in search of any momentum possible. A victory against the Bucks is as good a starting point as any.

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