- Phil Taylor
INDIANAPOLIS -- As a flummoxing and enigmatic Indiana Pacers season draws to a close, the team is still searching for a semblance of consistency, a reason for fans -- and certainly this locker room -- to believe they can become more than the sum of their parts.
The basketball scheduling gods have given the Pacers ample opportunity to come together during the home stretch. Of Indiana’s final 20 games, 13 are against opponents below .500. However, this being the Pacers, they are just 7-14 against some of the NBA's worst squads. Milwaukee, New York, Charlotte, Denver and Philadelphia are just a few of the subpar teams to get the better of Indiana.
Which made Sunday’s 102-98 win over the Miami Heat all the more pressing. Miami was on the second night of a back-to-back without point guard and noted Pacers-killer, Goran Dragic. Indiana had a day of rest and played on their home court. This was a tin-can game, an easy one to kick over and keep their standing in the playoff chase.
It wasn’t easy. Rarely is with the Pacers. But a strong performance from Paul George and a timely play from Myles Turner pushed them past Miami for the first time this season. George finished with a game high 28 points on 9-of-19 shooting, grabbed 10 boards and sunk each of his nine attempts from the foul line.
Miami’s size was the greatest factor in keeping the game close. Though the Heat shot just 41 percent from the floor and 28 percent from behind the 3-point arc, 16 offensive rebounds gave them enough extra possessions to remain within striking distance -- and even give them a one-point lead with three minutes remaining.
The main culprit was Miami big man Hassan Whiteside, who Pacers forward C.J. Miles describes as "a tree." Whiteside scored 26 points and collected 21 rebounds, his second 20-20 game against Indiana this season.
“There was one play where I went for a rebound, and I didn’t know (Whiteside) was behind me,” Miles said. “He just reached over me and grabbed the ball. He was just standing there. I jumped up to get it and he barely came up off his toes.”
While Whiteside hogged the glass from start to finish, it was a key sequence from the scrappy and spirited Turner that solidified the victory. With 58 seconds remaining, the Pacers clung to a 99-96 lead. One more basket would likely mean victory. Such an easy task has frequently proven a monolithic chore for Indiana this season. But after missing back-to-back layups in a scrum under the basket, Turner fought off multiple Miami players to finish with an emphatic put-back dunk. As Heat players sulked to the bench during a timeout, Turner hip-checked and high-fived his way to the Pacers’ huddle.
“It was a big play, keeping the ball alive,” George said. “That was the biggest thing about that play, and he finished it strong. We needed that. That definitely gave us the cushion and that’s what sealed the game tonight.”
- Phil Taylor
Turner’s effort was more impressive than his final box score. Though he dropped 15 points, he shot just 4-of-14 from the floor, instead feasting at the foul line where he connected on all seven attempts. Turner also grabbed eight rebounds to end a four-game slump in which he averaged just 5 points and 5 boards.
Turner’s feistiness is exactly what Indiana needs in its remaining 16 games. The Pacers are 34-32, sixth in the Eastern Conference and the last team above .500. With their next three opponents beneath them in the standings, now is the time for urgency over complacency.
Easier said than done. These Pacers have a knack for playing down to the competition. The upcoming slate of games features New York and Charlotte, teams against which Indiana is a combined 1-5. Then there are the losses to Brooklyn (12-53), Philadelphia (23-42),Phoenix (22-44) and the Lakers (20-45).
Why can’t this team win the gimmes?
“A lot of times the NBA is about matchups,” Miles said. “Sometimes you have guys you don’t matchup well with. Maybe it’s a big that stretches the floor, maybe it’s an elite guard that’s able to do certain things that nobody in the league can stop. In this league every one figures out ways to score and do what they do, that’s why they’re NBA players.”
Miles is right regarding matchups. Look no further than the Milwaukee Bucks, a long, tall, quick team with a stockpile of outside shooters and a rising star in Giannis Antetokounmpo -- one of the few players George struggles to guard. The Bucks are undefeated against the Pacers this season because their strengths are Indiana's weaknesses.
But losing to inept lottery teams (no offense, Brooklyn) is something else entirely and cuts to a deeper concern with this roster. Though the pieces don’t always fit, the talent on this Pacers team is nonetheless substantial enough to will them to enough victories. But the offense (17th best in the league) is cumbersome and the defense (16th) fizzles too often. Rotations don’t always click and the bench is prone to resembling an albatross.
But, yet again, Indiana has time to right the ship and find its groove. 16 games isn’t a lot of runway before the postsesaon, but the lackluster quality of many of their remaining opponents gives some hope the Pacers can stick the landing. Should they fail, it’s one step closer to George flying solo to his California home.