INDIANAPOLIS -- It was the kind of night the Pacers desperately needed, the kind of gut check that lends some resolve to a team with many questions that have gone unanswered during the early part of this season.
While the verdict is still out regarding the ceiling of Indiana’s up-tempo offense and its do-what-it-can defense, the league got a good look at the team's potential Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse as the Pacers routed the Chicago Bulls, 111-94.
Indiana played its best game of the season, looking measured and efficient offensively while delivering a defensive performance so stifling and controlling it makes prior debacles to Brooklyn and Milwaukee seem all the more perplexing.
The Bulls, who entered as one of the better shooting teams in the league, were held below 40 percent from the field for the bulk of the game. The few good looks Chicago received came at the foul line, where they shot 20-of-25 in a frantic attempt to keep the game close.
It didn’t work.
Not when Paul George continued his elite level of play, 13 points on 10 shot attempts before being ejected during the third quarter for kicking the ball into the stands and into a fan’s face after disagreeing with a foul call -- his lone blemish on a superb season.
“I meant to kick the ball off the basket stanchion, but my soccer skills aren't as good as I thought,” George said. “I apologized to her about hitting her. I’m just glad my teammates could pick me up so I wasn’t responsible for a loss.”
What could have been a blunder became a mere hiccup. The Pacers maintained their commanding lead and held an opponent under 100 points for the first time this season. Backup forward CJ Miles chipped in 20 points while shooting 4-of-7 from behind the arc, and Jeff Teague finally woke up from a coma to put up a game-high 21 points in his best game for the Pacers.
“That’s the Jeff that we felt we were getting,” coach Nate McMillan said regarding the team’s offseason trade for the Indianapolis native. “I thought he just played a nice, controlled game. I thought his defense was good on (Bulls guard, Rajon) Rondo. He was aggressive, he didn’t force anything. He allowed the game to come to him and took advantage of what the defense was giving him.”
Teague made 9 of 14 attempts, including a trio of 3-pointers, and collected six assists. But his ability to guard Chicago’s point of attack was crucial to Indy’s defensive gameplan. While Rondo notched 13 assists when the Bulls rolled over the Pacers on Oct. 29 by a score of 118-101, he was limited to just 5 on Saturday as Teague held his own and refused Rondo the same room with the ball.
Just as impressive was Monta Ellis’s defensive effort against Dwyane Wade, who signed with Chicago during the offseason after 13 seasons with the Miami Heat. Wade scored just four points and shot 1-of-11 from the field. Ellis never bit on Wade’s patented pump fakes and held his own when the bigger Wade tried and failed to post up.
“We know he’s going to compete every single night, every single minute he’s on the floor,” McMillan said. “The gameplan was to match Monta with Wade… He’s up for the challenge. We all know what they did to us in Chicago, and I thought we came back and responded tonight.”
Ellis finished with as many points (two) as shot attempts, but still finished a game high +21 point differential by contributing in other ways. When he wasn’t shutting down Wade, he was grabbing a team-high seven boards and racking up a team-high eight assists -- including a flashy spin move past two defenders to find an open Lavoy Allen under the basket.
Though defense was the surprise of the night, so was the team’s consistent offensive execution. The Pacers took the court with the league’s 11th best offensive rating, but have been prone to stretches of stagnant play and empty possessions. Against the Bulls, the points came in a hurry and they didn’t stop. Indiana led by 19 at the half, and six players scored in double digits. The Pacers shot 53 percent from the field and 46 percent from downtown.
George has made his preference for a more structured offense known, one where pace and tempo aren’t always the overriding factors when it comes to scoring. McMillan says he has added more sets to the offense, but also says Saturday's win had more to do with execution.
“We’ve added some sets, but what we’ve talked about mostly is organizing,” McMillan said. “When you don’t have a (fastbreak), taking a quick shot is not what we want. We don’t want to play a run-gun game. So when you don’t have a break, get to your spot, call a play and run the play hard. And I thought tonight was probably the best night we did that.”
Their best night, indeed. One that needs to be the start of a trend instead of an outlier for a turbulent season.