- Phil Taylor
INDIANAPOLIS -- History will give this game an asterisk, but these Indiana Pacers give it a thumbs up.
LeBron James made his season debut at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in a suit, sitting out Cleveland’s second game in as many nights in order to stay fresh for the long haul of the NBA season. Fans were rightly disgruntled and the Cavaliers obviously missed their MVP.
Pacers players and coaches didn’t care.
LeBron James or not, there was a game to win, chemistry to build and a defense to salvage. After 11 games, Indiana sported an underwhelming 5-6 record with a tough stretch looming on the schedule -- including games against Oklahoma City, Golden State, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Clippers.
It’s too early to call any of these games make-or-break, but a lot of losses this early in the season could only compound this team’s issues.
However, if anything was broken Wednesday in Indiana’s 103-93 victory, it may have been it’s early-season funk. For the second game in a row, the Pacers looked one step closer to becoming the team they want to be: running the break, whipping the ball around the court and playing unified defense.
At one point during the third quarter, with the Pacers nursing a slim lead, the team gave its most complete effort of the season on that side of the ball, nailing every switch and thwarting every effort by the Cavs to find an open man. Fans noticed, too, rewarding players with a round of applause.
“We’re starting to trust each other,” said Paul George regarding his team’s newfound defensive effort. “We’re just honoring each other’s calls. We’re starting to trust each other from the standpoint of, when a guy tells someone to be in a spot, they’re getting in that spot now. I think, just overall, we got tired of looking embarrassed and getting our butt whupped.”
And tired of being the fourth worst defensive team in the league, an intolerable mark for a defensive stalwart like George -- who finished with 20 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists. But in the Pacers’ last two wins, they’ve held opponents below 100 points while shooting a combined 36.5 percent from the floor.
I know, both games featured an opponent on the second night of a back-to-back on the road. One game included the miserable Orlando Magic and the other was the Cavs minus King James.
So what? Cleveland still has two All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, dynamic players capable of filling up the box score as they did against the Pacers. Love scored a game-high 27 points and grabbed 16 rebounds while Irving finished with 24 points and seven assists. Both scored at a rate higher than their season averages.
But the Pacers, as they have failed to do so many times in these games, responded. When Love burned them for an open 3-pointer, Pacers forward Thad Young got one of his own the following possession. When Cavs center Tristan Thompson buried Myles Turner on a ferocious dunk, Turner pulled even later in the game with a highlight block.
- Phil Taylor
And then there’s point guard Jeff Teague, who continues growing into his new role with his new team. In his last five games, Teague is averaging 18.8 points while shooting 48.4 percent from the floor and attempting six free throws. He showed no sign of stopping against Irving on Wednesday, taking the fight to the championship-winning point guard all night.
“He’s a talented player,” Teague of Irving. “We just try to do our best to try and stay in front of him, make him take tough (two-point shots). He missed some easy ones, but we tried to contest every shot that he took. I think we did a pretty good job.”
Indiana also protected it’s lead for much of the night. After squandering double-digit leads in games to Brooklyn, the Lakers and Philadelphia, the Pacers responded every time a Cleveland run kept the game at a competitive distance. Indiana never led by more than 13, but maintained its lead from midway through the first quarter until the final buzzer.
What was the difference?
“Just execution,” Young said. “Just execution and believing in the offense and continuing to move the basketball and continuing to get good shots. That’s what happened in the end, we ended up getting good shots. They took one thing away, and we’d go to the next option.”
Plenty of work still remains for these Pacers as they continue meshing into the high-scoring, cohesive unit they desire to be. And though there is reason for optimism in the locker room, these players know it’s only one game against a short-handed opponent. It’s only one game of 82. It’s only one game that stands in contrast to several others.
But, it’s a start. And it might be the start this team is looking for.