The Pacers Still Have It, and They’ve Known It All Along
April 13, 2014
“I don’t know.”
That is the exact answer both David West and Luis Scola gave when asked why they were so efficient offensively in the Pacers’ 102-97 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday afternoon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
It’s also the same answer that many Pacers have given over the better part of the last two months when asked what was broken with a team that was once considered the best in the NBA, but had played .500 basketball since Feb. 7.
The win over a true championship contender in the Thunder shouldn’t fool us this time. The Pacers have had what were thought to be “we’re back” wins during their extended funk before, namely against the Bulls and Heat.
But one thing we – and the country – learned on Sunday afternoon in a nationally-televised contest is that the Pacers still have it.
“It” for this team can be defined as stout defense, an average offense that can create opportunities by moving the basketball, and the ability to battle for a full 48 minutes to earn quality victories. The Pacers held a team that came in averaging over 106 points per game to 97 on 43 percent shooting. On the other end of the floor, Indiana shot 53 percent and was 9-of-20 from 3-point range.
The Pacers’ biggest problem Sunday was their 23 turnovers. But if that’s the only problematic facet of the day’s performance, Indiana had issues with turnovers when it was 33-7.
There has been serious concern that Indiana had lost “it,” and that the brand of basketball this team had been playing over the last two months would be the brand they would take into the postseason, making an abbreviated playoff run that would end far too soon based on their early-season potential.
So, did they lose it? Or has it always been there, lying dormant, buried beneath the burden of expectations and the transformation from overachieving underdogs to top dogs that should dominate their way back to the Eastern Conference Finals?
Let the Pacers tell you for themselves:
“We just went through a tough stretch. We’ve proved and shown that we can play good basketball. We were still the top-five, top-six record in the league. We just went through a tough month and a tough stretch. But we knew what we had.”
What they had was always there, according to the team’s star. It just hasn’t been appearing consistently. On Sunday, George was only 6-of-17 from the field, but he was aggressive early and often, getting to the foul line and getting separation from defenders, something that’s been a real struggle for him ever since teams began adjusting on him defensively.
“It was all about just moving,” said George, who had 20 points and 12 rebounds. “Just moving and being aggressive offensively. You know, I was kind of just reading how their guys were guarding me tonight, and using their pressure and their aggressiveness against them.”
“We’ve never felt like (we lost it). Our confidence has never really gone anywhere. We were just in a funk. I don’t think we were able to put the type of energy plus the execution together in stretches, so we struggled. But we know we can play. We know we’ve got another gear we can hit.”
We witnessed vintage David West on Sunday, as he connected on an ultra-efficient 9-of-11 shot attempts for a team-high 21 points. He was on, and when he said he didn’t know why, it was indicative of this team’s attitude: We know we can play like this; we just haven’t been lately.
“I don’t know,” West said, sincerely pondering the question of why things were so good for him Sunday. “Just playing. Just playing. Just kind of taking what’s there, moving it when you’ve gotta move it. Everybody was a threat I thought. Even the shots that we missed, you just have to carry that threat.”
Perhaps just as critical as his offensive contributions was a single defensive play West made with 57 seconds remaining, when he blocked a 3-point attempt by Kevin Durant with Indiana leading 94-91. That led to a Pacers timeout, followed by a huge 3-pointer by Lance Stephenson.
“Once I saw the way they were lined up, I knew what was coming,” West said. “I mean, that’s a play that almost every NBA team runs. They tried to throw a wrinkle in it, but I let my guy go because he wasn’t getting the ball in that moment. So I just sniffed it out; just chased Durant over the top and made a play on the ball.”
West said that the intensity of the focus the Pacers had on this afternoon was a result of the caliber of team they were up against. But as has been the case throughout this extended fog Indiana has experienced, is there a fear that this team will fall into another rut in the early rounds of the playoffs, before they see a team like the defending-champion Heat?
“There’s just too much on the line at that point,” West said. “Even now, our focus is to go into the playoffs feeling good, confident, strong and together.”
“We knew it was there. We’ve just had our ups and downs. I feel like that brought us together more. I feel like that made us more of a team. I think it’s helping us, making us more of a unit. I mean, when we play together and share the ball, the game is easy for us.”
It looked a lot easier for the Pacers Sunday than it has in some time. For Stephenson, who hit the clutch trey late and finished with his league-leading fifth triple-double of the season, it was a matter of enjoying what he loves doing.
“This is like a playoff atmosphere,” Stephenson said of the matchup against the Thunder. “I just wanted to get a ‘W,’ get my teammates involved and have fun doing it.”
Getting his teammates involved was a big component of his performance Sunday, as Stephenson finished with 11 assists to go along with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
“We always knew we still had it. You just gotta go out there and play hard, move the ball. During that little struggle that we had, we didn’t move the ball and we weren’t playing great defense. And I think that’s what we’re trying to get back to. So hopefully this game tonight and the next one will help us get ready for the playoffs and have that momentum.”
Watson, who was sidelined nearly a month with a hamstring injury, was 6-of-10 from the field, including 4-of-7 from beyond the 3-point line in 25 minutes on the floor. He said getting acclimated to game action again is not an issue, and as his play Sunday showed, he’s ready.
“It wasn’t hard at all,” he said. “I’ve been still shooting and running. So the only thing that’s hard probably is getting in shape and stuff like that. But I’ve been running and doing my side stuff so it wasn’t anything where I thought it was going to be a slow start.”
Watson hit his first four shots, and for his fifth attempt, he brought the ball across the timeline, got near the arc at the top and promptly fired another 3. It didn’t go, but Watson knew that he was feeling it, and it would be wrong not to try for a fifth consecutive bucket.
“Make it or miss it, I’m going to keep shooting, regardless,” Watson said. “When you see the ball go through the rim, it makes it a little easier to shoot the next one when you get the ball. So you’ve just gotta be aggressive, and that’s what I’ve been doing.”
“A win is important, but the damage a loss would have made on us in our heads and our confidence would be, I believe, much more than whatever the win gives us. As much as a win is or the No. 1 seed is vs. the confidence that we get from (retaking) the one-seed with the win against Oklahoma City and going into the playoffs right now (is huge).”
Scola has rediscovered his midrange jumper. After shooting 47 percent in March, he’s shooting 57 percent so far in April, and that couldn’t come at a better time for the Pacers.
But like West, he’s expected that all along, and couldn’t tell you why he had been off before.
“Nothing’s changed,” he said. “I’m just feeling well. Sometimes, you know, it goes up and down.”
There is one thing that Scola knows, though.
“I have no way to know the future,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next game. What I know is that we’re playing for everything now. The next game is for the No. 1 seed. And then after that, there’s no more nothing; it’s just playing now. It’s just playing for everything.”
"It didn't go anywhere. Some of the games we lost, you know, when you look at the tape, we missed wide-open shots and we did some stuff that we're not used to. It's a long season. I'm happy that towards the end of the season we've started playing the right way."
Mahinmi had a season-high 11 points off the bench for the Pacers Sunday, and his offensive contribution helped pick up Roy Hibbert, who was 0-for-9 from the field. He also grabbed five rebounds (three offensive boards) and blocked a shot in his 20-plus minutes on the floor.
Mahinmi has been coming on particularly strong in April, averaging 5.8 points on 83 percent shooting in 17 minutes per game this month.
"For me, getting a few put-backs, getting a few offensive rebounds, being at the right place at the right time when my teammates find me, I was able to make easy buckets," Mahinmi said. "I think we had the right energy today."
“If the ball sticks, we don’t really play well. But when we move the ball and everybody gets touches, everybody’s happy and everybody competes on the other end. Sometimes the ball can stick, you know? When you have players that are great isolation players, that’s good, but you can’t be (doing that) four, five possessions in a row. So every once in a while, that’s good.”
Hibbert got his touches Sunday – nine that became shot attempts, to be exact – but finished with no points. His energy level, however, appeared to be on par with the rest of his teammates, leading to good footwork and open looks at the rim. They just didn’t fall.
“Shots for me didn’t fall tonight,” Hibbert said. “But you still want to be aggressive, and my thing has always been to help Paul out as much as possible – he’s guarding one of the best players in the NBA – so have his back on the defensive end. We were all defensive-minded tonight.”
Hibbert was good on the defensive end, protecting the rim with the type of effort Frank Vogel had become accustomed to seeing when Hibbert became the early-season favorite to win the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award. His offensive woes didn’t affect his mindset on defense, and that’s a huge victory for Hibbert in itself.
Now 2-for-21 from the field in his last three games, Hibbert didn’t appear to be dwelling on his offensive woes. Instead, it looked as though he was determined all the more to turn things around.
“I feel like I have to make an upward trend, and it starts tonight,” Hibbert said. “I can assure you this though: if I get those shots again, it’s gonna go in.”
What transpires over the rest of this month and – should the Pacers make it into May – beyond, is anybody’s guess.
But what this team displayed Sunday afternoon, before a network television audience, was that it hasn’t lost what made it a contender for an NBA championship this season.
Scola perhaps best summed up what Sunday means to a group that’s endured a decline possibly unlike any other that an NBA title contender has experienced.
And it’s cause for hope for everyone within the Indiana locker room, as well as a message to those without.
“I was much more surprised with all those games that we didn’t play well, than with today, when we did,” Scola said. “This, to me, feels normal.”
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