- Phil Taylor
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indiana Pacers’ littlest player may have spurred the team’s biggest moment of the season.
As a dejected and fractured team flew home Tuesday night after an abysmal loss to the New York Knicks -- a game in which they scored a season low 81 points -- 6-foot point guard Aaron Brooks spoke up. Though the third-string player has logged just 13 minutes the last eight games, he kick-started a player’s meeting in which everyone aired their grievances and rallied around a common cause.
Come together. Get better. Do it now.
With 14 games left in the regular season, the Pacers hold a tenuous grasp on the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. They’re 35-33, just two games ahead of the next three teams in the standings -- two of which (Miami and Milwaukee) own the head-to-head tiebreaker. This team can’t afford another six game losing stretch like the one they endured earlier this season. This team needs to find resolve and the gumption to fight back.
That newly-invigorated fighting spirit was demonstrated in full force less than 24 hours later at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the Pacers eviscerated the Charlotte Hornets 98-77. George led all players in scoring with a season high 39 points, shooting 15-of-21 from the field.
“We had a great talk on the plane. We were forced to -- nowhere to go,” George said. “We had a really great talk. I felt we needed that a lot sooner. We could’ve had that talk a long time ago. But it was pretty much guys saying ‘Hey, I’m with you in this fight.’’
“For the most part, what we took away from it was guys was miscommunicating, not knowing and unsure of what other guys were feeling.” George continued. “And at the end of the day, we were all on the same page. That’s what it came down to. Tonight we talked, everybody was verbal and it showed.”
The bulk of the Pacers’ rout occurred during the second half. After playing to a draw at 42 at the midway point Indiana outscored Charlotte 56-35 the rest of the way, shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor and the 3-point line. George scored 15 in the third quarter, dusting off any defender the Hornets who dared cross his path.
“Just found a rhythm early,” George said. “Playing this team for a fourth time, I knew how I was going to be guarded coming in. I had my mind wrapped around it being a physical game, and for the most part they play straight up. I just knew, and I thought Jeff (Teague) was great in the open court, in the half court finding me. And Myles (Turner) and I had great chemistry on pin-downs.”
George’s big game was echoed elsewhere in the box score. The Pacers out-rebounded Charlotte by 12, dished out 15 more assists and connected on nine more shots from downtown.
- Phil Taylor
As for Kemba Walker, the Hornets’ All-Star guard who usually devours the Pacers as a light snack, he was contained by Indiana for the first time this season. While Walker averages 21 points, 7 assists and shoots better than 50 percent from long range against the Pacers, he was hounded from start to finish, posting a season low seven points on 3-of-11 shooting.
“We were just being active,” Jeff Teague said. “Myles (Turner) did a great job of being up front in pick and rolls. We just tried to make him see bodies and we did a good job of that as a team. I think it was one of our best defensive efforts tonight and we just have to carry it over.”
That last part is the real take away. The Pacers have been many things this season, sometimes all at once. But the one constant has been an allergic reaction to consistency. Just when this team seems to be on the same page, when there’s hope of a dispiriting season turning the corner, the same ugly elements rear their heads: lazy defense, sluggish offense, lack of communication, zero execution.
Such woes have cost Indiana in the standings. The Pacers are 10-13 against teams with a winning record, but just a tepid 24-20 against teams below .500. Indiana has shown the ability to play scrappy and focused against the NBA’s big fish, but tend to play down against the minnows.
Their worst tendencies cannot be present during the home stretch of the seasons. Friday’s road contest against Detroit will mark the end of a seven game stint in which Indiana faces an opponent with a losing record. Beginning Sunday in Toronto, it’s a roundhouse of playoff teams -- including Utah, Boston, Denver, Memphis and Cleveland.
It’ll be stiff competition for Indiana the rest of the way, but competition they were supposed to contend with from the get-go. Here’s hoping big words from a small player loom large the rest of way, lest the Pacers give everyone more of the same.