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David West Leads Pacers to Win and Top Spot in East

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 13

David West lends substance and clarity to the Pacers, whether it's by knocking down midrange jumpers like they're popcorn, sniffing out and snuffing out the game's most important shot, or slicing through the postgame locker room vapor to explain their puzzling late-season swoon.

The Pacers' 102-97 win over Oklahoma City at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Sunday played out like – and sounded like – a revival for the team that had lost eight of its previous 11 games. But their fans have seen this before. The win over Chicago on March 21, the win over Miami on March 26, the win over Detroit on April 2, even the win at Milwaukee last Wednesday when the starters watched from the bench … each one seemed like a U-turn toward the peak of the season's first three months, only to lead to another rut.

So, it's best to let time determine whether the Pacers are indeed back. Yes, Sunday's victory, against the second-best team in the Western Conference, one that had nothing to play for but still played to win, was encouraging. And, with just one regular season game to play, at Orlando on Wednesday, they can lock up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, their stated goal from the start of the season but one they later seemed determined to fumble away. Still, it was just one win. The Pacers lately have had a knack for offering their fans a chair on which to relax, and then yanking it away.

Coach Frank Vogel had pushed "Delete" on the seeding goal after his team struggled for so long, focusing instead on improvement, but it's back in play now that the Pacers control their destiny. Should Miami lose at Washington on Monday and hand the top seed to the Pacers, they can rest the starters again in Orlando. But, should the Pacers need to win in Orlando to finish atop the East, they appear set to go for it.

“I think the plan is for us to play and try to get our 56th win,” West said.

West had as much as anyone to do with Sunday's 55th. Lance Stephenson had his fifth triple-double, the most in the NBA this season and the most in any season for a Pacer. C.J. Watson scored 20 points off the bench, hitting 4-of-7 three-pointers. The reserves combined to score 41 points on 15-of-22 shooting. Paul George had 20 points and 12 rebounds.

West, however, led the scoring with 21 points, hitting 9-of-11 shots, drained the game-clinching free throws with 8.3seconds left and pitched in with a block of Kevin Durant's three-point shot with 57.8 seconds left. The Pacers led by just three at the time, and Durant was working on a 38-point effort. He hit just 2-of-11 three-pointers, but nobody would have bet against him hitting that shot on a play freshly drawn up during a timeout.

Thing was, it was a play West had seen before. He left his man to help on Durant, and flicked the attempt away. Stephenson then hit a three-pointer out of another 20-second timeout to open a six-point lead for the Pacers.

“Once I saw the way they were lined up, I knew what was coming,” West said. “That's something almost every NBA team runs. I just sniffed it out and chased Durant over the top and made a play on the ball.”

It seems a bit strange seeing the Pacers back on top of the East, given all the justified anxiety over their recent play. West, though, has sniffed out the primary reason for the struggles, and it wasn't the focus on seeding.

“Probably what affected us more was everybody writing good stuff and saying good things and patting guys on the back,” West said. “All that stuff probably affected us more than actually going out and playing for the top spot.”

In other words, some heads swelled. Not just from all the positive press, but from the endorsements and other fruits that come with success on a national scale. West, though, believes everyone is becoming grounded again, and that the team will be better for the difficult times.

“You have to handle success the right way,” West said. “We've had some guys having to grow and learn from that experience. Paul was an up-and-comer, but now you've got (opponents) trying to make a name against Paul. It's something you can't talk him through, he just has to go through it. Same with Lance. As they've developed, teams have ratcheted it up and made it difficult for him.

“What we do isn't easy. Guys have to know that. But the moments we were down, communication was open on all sides. We talked ourselves through some things. We started looking more like ourselves, and we feel good about that. We know it's a grind. The season is basically playing 82 exhibition games, because the playoffs are the only games that mean something. You've got to learn from that. With one game to go, our guys have gotten stronger, and some of our younger guys have matured and taken another step toward being pro athletes.”

There's something else in play, though. The Pacers have revamped their offense. What once too often degenerated into one guy holding the ball while four others stood and watched has evolved into a more flowing and fluid system that keeps bodies in motion. It's been that way for awhile now, but turnovers and missed shots made it difficult to notice.

The Pacers still committed 23 turnovers on Sunday, but they weren't as damaging as the 16 in Miami on Friday. Their field goal shooting, 53 percent, and timely defense allowed them to get away with the mistakes.

Now they can regain a couple of items that seemed hopelessly lost as recently as, oh, Saturday: The top seed in their conference, and even a hint of momentum.

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