For all the stumbling and bumbling and other Chris Berman type of words you could apply the the Pacers recent play, it’s hard to be too upset with the results after yesterday’s big win against the Thunder. Has it been tough to watch? Absolutely. Are all the problems fixed? Undoubtedly not. But are there signs of hope? Aplenty.
Watching the bench pull out a big win against the Bucks* was the first sign. Not so much that the bench did pull out the win, though that was awfully nice. The bigger sign, to me, anyway, had to do with how the rest of the team reacted. You might remember that the game against the Hawks just before that was about as ugly as it could have been. It also featured a benched Roy Hibbert, who was, how to put this, very visibly unhappy with the decision. All the play and chatter leading up to that game pointed to a team that just flat out didn’t like or trust each other. When fan favorite Chris Copeland hit the game winner, though, you could just feel the team re-galvanizing. I mean, really, look at this and tell me you can’t feel it. To that point, Paul George posted a picture of a fishing trip he took with Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner the other day. It seemed like that happened fairly often in the early part of the season. Not so much lately. I’m sure weather played a role in that, too, but there may have been some underlying factors as well.
*Normally “big win” and “2014 Milwaukee Bucks” are not two things you would expect to go together. But given the timing of the game, the Heat graciously leaving the door open, and the fact the Pacer B-Team was playing, it was a much bigger, more interesting game than anybody would have rightfully expected back in December.
After that was Friday’s game against the Heat. Most have focused on the fact that the Pacers were not able to pull that game out along with the atrocious third quarter. And make no mistake about it, that third quarter was one of the worst displays of basketball I have seen out of any team on any level. But, look at the other three quarters. For 75% of that game, the Pacers more-or-less looked like the Pacers we had come to expect the first half of the season. No, they didn’t ultimately win, but you might remember how quickly the team cut the lead in half to open the fourth quarter. Thankfully, the Heat apparently used too much juice against the Pacers and again left the door open the next night. Just in time for the Thunder to come to town.
And, well, the Pacers answered the bell. The Thunder are a very good team. And they did not rest their starters, even though they didn’t have seeding to play for as far as I know. Russell Westbrook played over 30 minutes. Kevin Durant played over 40. If that’s resting your starters, I don’t think they know the meaning of “rest” in Oklahoma. No, this was a serious, playoff-type game, and both teams turned in a serious, playoff-type performance. And the Pacers came out on top, even breaking a hundred points in the process. Discounting the Milwaukee game that featured no starters, that had happened three whole times in the past month. Twice against Detroit and once against Philadelphia. Not exactly murderer’s row, even throwing the Bucks back in there. But they broke through yesterday against a top-half defense. And when things got tough at the end of the game, the team toughened up right with it. Big defensive plays* and hitting some clutch free throws, all things we hadn’t seen in recent weeks.
*And that three Durant hit at the end of the game was just ridiculous. Paul George did everything humanly possible to defend that three, and he had Durant shooting a turnaround, fadeaway three at the elbow. When that shot swished in, all you could do was laugh.
Some will probably be calling for George Hill’s job, and, I mean, it’s just inevitable. Pacer fans have never been happy with the point guard, at least going back to the Mark Jackson days. I would imagine people were complaining about Freddie Lewis back in the ABA days. As Frank Vogel said after the game, though, the decision to play CJ Watson down the stretch had a lot more to do with what Watson was doing as opposed to what Hill was not. And, well, it makes sense. While Watson has been hurt, the team has had no real choice but to log serious minutes on George Hill, who isn’t a pure point guard in the first place. For all the players that have been talked about needing rest, Hill is the one who truly has needed it the most. I don’t know if he took more than a couple minutes off in a second half during that whole stretch Watson was out. Of course he isn’t going to look as sharp as he did early in the year. And, well, with tired legs, his offense is inevitably going to suffer. Now that he might catch a breather once in a while, I expect to see him starting to look for his own offense more. And just in time, too, with the playoffs just a game away.
On the flip side of that, CJ Watson has to easily be the most rested regular-rotation player on the roster. He was out for what felt like forever,* and even when he briefly came back, he hadn’t played in back-to-back games in well over a month. He logically should have been primed for a huge game against Oklahoma City, who had been in their own fight for first with the Spurs. And, well, he looked pretty good, didn’t he?
*I’m sure that feeling was made much worse by the team’s performance without him.
So, yes, the last month or so has been pretty damned disheartening for the Pacers. But winning works wonders, and works it quick when your competition has been struggling just as badly. For all the stumbling along, the Pacers are still in the driver’s seat for the top seed in the East, which was their very publicly stated goal. They are just a win over Orlando on Wednesday from making that reality. It may actually come true as soon as tonight, if Washington can manage to beat the Heat. Which, well, the top seed looks particularly attractive this season. With the top seed, the Pacers would play Atlanta in the first round, which, to paraphrase Sports Illustrated, accidentally made the playoffs. The Heat would have to deal with a surprisingly spry Bobcats team. Now, I don’t think Charlotte will actually win that series, but they could well make it much tougher than expected for Miami. The second round looks a little dicier, with the Pacers having to tangle with either Chicago or Brooklyn, both teams that have come up much tougher than expected late in the season. Miami, on the other hand, would either get Toronto or Washington. Both teams I would really rather see. Why do we still bother with divisions in the NBA, again?
First things first, though. Let’s get this win on Wednesday and lock up the first big goal.