- Phil Taylor
INDIANAPOLIS -- Larry Bird sat in his usual seat Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, watching the Indiana Pacers play a game that served a microcosm of their indefinable season.
As Bird -- team president and architect of this misshapen roster -- saw Indiana rally from a 16-point deficit to secure a 115-111 overtime victory over the Sacramento Kings, he witnessed an undersized and defensively-challenged Pacers squad get punished on the glass and give up enough open 3-pointers to make Arron Afflalo look like Steph Curry.
From the opening tip and on through the third quarter, the Pacers appeared drained and defeated, victims of the NBA scheduling gods. They were tasked with slowing down DeMarcus Cousins less than 24 hours after beating a scrappy Timberwolves team in Minnesota. While Paul George scored 31 in the Twin Cities on Thursday, Cousins paid off his sleep debt.
At least that’s how it appeared the bulk of this game. As Cousins singlehandedly out-rebounded Indiana’s entire starting lineup, and the Kings ruled the court with physicality and a litany of open 3-pointers, the Pacers stumbled and sputtered their way to what looked to be another characteristic and troubling loss.
That’s when it happened. Something Bird always intended to happen but has come up short on so many occasions.
Indiana went small.
But not the way Bird initially planned it, no. Upon correctly seeing the future of the NBA after the 2014-15 season, he foresaw a league in which small lineups dominated opposing defenses through spacing, ball movement and knock-down shooting.
Then he signed Monta Ellis, a ball-dominant guard who can’t do any of the above criteria. Ditto Rodney Stuckey, who missed Friday’s game with an injured hamstring. How those two players have contributed to this team’s sagging ways is well documented.
But while two of Bird’s biggest free agent gets did little in the way of helping Indiana to victory, it was two of his bargain-bin signings in Glenn Robinson III and C.J. Miles that paid huge dividends.
With a double-digit deficit and seemingly no answer for Sacramento, Pacers coach Nate McMillan employed a proper spread lineup, composed of Jeff Teague, Robinson, Miles, Paul George and Myles Turner. One big man. One guard. Three shooters. A wonderfully simple recipe for success, one so elementary it’s bizarre how off Bird has been from the get-go in so many ways. With a bevy of scoring options and a do-what-it-can defensive attitude, Indiana hustled its way out of a 16-point hole to force a deciding overtime. It begins with Miles burying a trey from the corner, followed by bucket from Turner near the top of the key. Then it’s Teague getting deflections and extra possessions. Rinse and repeat.
- Phil Taylor
Even Lavoy Allen got in on the action. Yes, the same Lavoy Allen who played himself out of the rotation. He was a rebounder who couldn’t rebound. But with forward Kevin Seraphin out with bum knee, Allen showed the immense value he brings when executing the little things. Though his box score is measly, just four points and four boards, he was disruptive on defense by matching Cousins’ physicality. Cousins is a double-double machine, but thanks in part to Allen, he shot just 3-of-10 during the second half.
Meet Lavoy Allen, Boogie stopper.
And then there is Paul George. The same Paul George who erupted for 33 points, breaching the 30-point mark in three straight games. The same Paul George who relentlessly attacked the basket, connecting on 16 of 17 free throw attempts to give his team precious points while the clock sat motionless. The same Paul George who hit big shot after big shot, answering every challenge the Sacramento threw his way.
I know, the Kings are a bad team built on dysfunction, none more so tonight than forward Matt Barnes, who got into a cussing contest with McMillan during the fourth quarter over a foul call. I also know this one win won’t immediately solve the Pacers’ woes nor set them on a path to contending with the likes of Cleveland and Golden State.
But here’s hoping it corrects Bird’s half-cooked vision for his team. Going small for the sake of going small won’t cut it in a new-look NBA governed by the all-powerful outside shot. You need shooters, space and all the other benefits that trickle down to your offense when those two elements are present. Miles, George and the rest of the players who helped Indy rally for the win know that.
Perhaps the Pacers can give Bird enough space to clear his head some more.