Balanced Effort Leads Pacers Past Thunder’s Dynamic Duo

by Wheat Hotchkiss | @Wheat_Hotchkiss

April 13, 2014

Sunday afternoon’s game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse featured two teams with aspirations of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June. But the championship formula for each of those teams couldn’t be more different.

In one corner, you had the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose title hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of their two superstars.

In the other corner, you had the Indiana Pacers, a team that thrives when it has a balanced attack.

For the most part, the Thunder got what they wanted on Sunday. Kevin Durant, the NBA’s leading scorer and the prohibitive favorite to be named the league’s Most Valuable Player, was his usually brilliant self on the offensive end, scoring 38 points on 13-of-27 shooting (including a perfect 10-of-10 from the free throw line). Russell Westbrook, a three-time All-Star, put up big numbers as well: 21 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists.

But the Pacers’ balance helped them overcome OKC’s Batman and Robin act in a 102-97 win.

Six Pacers players scored in double figures. David West quietly and efficiently led the way with 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting. Paul George added 20, hitting three shots from beyond the arc and all five of his free throws. Lance Stephenson wreaked havoc on the Thunder’s defense, attacking the basket with his trademark aggression and finding the open man en route to his NBA-leading fifth triple-double of the season.

That’s not even mentioning all the production on Sunday from the Pacers’ bench.

Luis Scola scored 10 points in the first half. Ian Mahinmi provided an unexpected spark, scoring a season-high 11 points and collecting three offensive rebounds. C.J. Watson set a season-high of his own with 20 points, including 4-of-6 shooting from 3-point range.

Even the crowd got involved in the action on Sunday. When an overzealous Russell Westbrook went out of his way to block the Pacers' shots during a timeout, he caught his hand on the net and slipped and fell to the crowd's delight. The G2 Zone then serenaded him with a hearty "RUSS-ELL WEST-BROOK" chant as he retook the floor, and Westbrook made a point to stare down the fan section after a breakaway dunk (said Westbrook after the game: "It’s good. That means I’m doing something right if they’re screaming my name.")

When the Pacers play well, they get production across the board. One of the most memorable moments from last year’s playoff run was the press conference after the Pacers eliminated the Knicks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, when all five starters attended the postgame press conference.

It was a fitting tribute to the team’s balance – each of Indiana’s starters had led the team in scoring in at least one game in the series.

When the Pacers rocketed out to a 16-1 start this season, the elevated play of George and Stephenson led some to believe that the Pacers were becoming more like a team like the Thunder (or the Heat) that relies on one or two superstars.

But even then, Indiana was getting consistent production from several players. George Hill averaged 12.8 points per game in November. Roy Hibbert added 12.5, while West chipped in 11.9.

Similarly, the Pacers’ recent struggles can’t be pinned on any one player. In March, when the team went just 8-10, several players slumped in their production. George’s shooting percentage dipped to 37 percent. Stephenson’s assist numbers dropped, from 5.6 per game in January to 3.1 in March. Hibbert, who averaged 8.7 rebounds in November, grabbed just 4.6 per contest during the Pacers’ March sadness.

On Sunday afternoon, the Pacers started to look like the old Pacers again. And it’s no surprise that they did so with a well-rounded effort.

In the fourth quarter, while Durant and Westbrook combined to take nine of the Thunder’s last 11 shots, a different Pacers player seemed to make a big play every minute.

Watson hit a 3-pointer to stretch Indiana’s lead to double digits with 9:18 remaining. After Durant’s dunk cut the margin back to nine, Mahinmi grabbed Watson’s miss and laid it back in the basket to push the lead back to 11.

The Thunder responded with a 15-4 run to tie the game, but the Pacers again had an answer. Stephenson found George for a 3-pointer on the wing to help Indiana retake the lead with 2:09 to play. After a jumper from Durant, West hit a one-handed runner in the lane on the next possession to push the lead back to three.

A minute and a half later, Stephenson hit a long 3-pointer from the left wing that more or less sealed the victory.

There was no one singular “hero” in Sunday’s win, with big shots coming from so many different contributors.

“We forced them to shoot (jump shots), but they were hitting them,” Durant said after the game. “Scola hit some. Watson got hot from behind the 3-point line. Stephenson got into the paint for them and he was able to kick out and get guys open shots.”

Thunder head coach Scott Brooks said he thought his team allowed the Pacers to take too many open shots, citing Watson’s explosion for 12 points in 4:06 spanning the end of the first and start of the second quarters.

“You give a good basketball team some easy looks, they’re going to knock them down,” Brooks said. “Watson came in during that stretch, he had 12 points by the time we even looked up. You can’t relax. Any player in this league, if you relax, they’re going to score on you.”

With the playoffs around the corner, the Pacers still have plenty of kinks to work out. They had 23 turnovers on Sunday. Hibbert struggled again on the offensive end, going scoreless for the second time in three games on 0-for-9 shooting. George Hill, who didn’t attempt a shot in Friday night’s loss in Miami, had just three points and four fouls in 23 minutes.

Contributions from players like Mahinmi and Watson covered up Hibbert and Hill’s struggles on Sunday, but the Pacers will need more from their starting center and point guard if they hope to return to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Still, it was an overwhelmingly positive win for a team that has been roundly criticized in recent weeks, criticism that has come in part because of how well the Pacers started the season.

The Thunder know a thing or two about dealing with growing expectations. After going just 23-59 in their first season in Oklahoma City, they went 50-32 in 2009-10. A year later they were in the conference finals, and the year after that the NBA Finals.

Like the Thunder did a few seasons ago, the Pacers have gone from being the hunter to the hunted this season. At times, Indiana has struggled with making that adjustment. In the postgame locker room, Westbrook admitted that that shift can wear on players over the course of the season.

“It’s tough,” Westbrook said. “You’ve got to be able to take on (everybody). Teams are coming for you now, you’re not the team that everybody (overlooks and) you can slide in and win games. People want to come into here and win games. It’s a tough position to be in."

For Scott Brooks, the key to the Thunder’s success (this will be their fourth straight season with a win percentage over .670) has been to tune out outside voices, another area in which the Pacers have struggled over the past month.

“That’s why we’ve improved over the years every year – we don’t listen to a lot of the things that are said about us,” Brooks said. “And if you do, one day you’re good, one day you’re bad, and then you get confused and you’re on a roller coaster ride.”

In Brooks’ mind, a lot of that criticism of the Pacers in recent weeks has been unwarranted.

“What surprises me is that people are down on them,” Brooks said after Sunday’s game. “They’re a good basketball team, they’re well-coached, their record speaks for itself. In an 82 game season, you’re going to have some tough times. Unfortunately for them, they’re having it late in the season. But all it takes is a game or two to get back on.”

The Pacers certainly looked like they’d flipped a switch in their win over the Thunder. We’ll have to wait and see if they can build on Sunday’s well-balanced performance.

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