A Glimpse of Summer?

by Manny Randhawa | @MannyRsports

February 8, 2014 | 1:21 a.m.

They’ve played twice now. And both times, they gave us about as much drama and excitement as can come from a basketball game.

The Pacers and Trail Blazers – a couple of seasons ago a very unlikely pair of candidates to become a rapidly-emerging, edge-of-your-seat, must-see TV duo whenever they take the floor opposite one another – have played two of the most entertaining contests of the NBA season to date.

They met in Portland on Dec. 2, and just when the Blazers looked as though they might put the Pacers away late, Paul George single-handedly kept Indiana alive, scoring the team’s final 15 points with five 3-pointers over the contest’s final three minutes.

With the Pacers down 94-87 with 2:56 to play, George connected from beyond the arc to bring Indiana to within four. After Portland went up six with two LaMarcus Aldridge foul shots, George hit another from downtown. 96-93. Following another bucket by Aldridge, George connected again – this one from the left wing with Wesley Matthews draped all over him. 98-96.

Damian Lillard answered with a trey of his own on the other end, and Nicolas Batum later went to the line and made two free-throws. 103-96.

With 21 seconds to go, George did it again, this time from the right corner with Matthews’ hand in his face. 103-99, with Matthews’ body language translating into the following words: “You just can’t defend that.”

Lillard then drew a foul and hit both free-throws to make it 105-99.

With 10 seconds remaining on the clock, George hit yet another triple to bring the Pacers back to within three, only to fall 106-102 after his career-high scoring barrage.

The Pacers left everything out on the floor that night in the Pacific Northwest, and they walked out of the Moda Center with a hard-fought loss.

Fast-forward to Friday night.

Before a national television audience watching on ESPN, the third-best team in the Western Conference met the top team in the East – and the NBA – for a rematch. And it did not disappoint.

Blow-for-blow, two heavyweights went at it, with dramatic basket after dramatic basket falling on both ends of the floor – whether from George Hill, the unlikely Pacers’ hero on this night who scored a career-high 37 points and hit a game-tying 3 with eight seconds to play – or Lillard, who dropped 38 points and hit four 3’s of his own, including one that brought the Blazers to within three with 38 seconds remaining in overtime.

It was riveting. And it more than lived up to whatever hype this game may have generated before tip-off.

“Both games came down to the last minute,” Lillard said. “It came down to who was going to make a stop and who was going to make a play. The first game it was us, and tonight, it was them.”

Robin Lopez, who had 17 points and 14 rebounds, said the difference between the two teams Friday was simple.

“The game had to end,” Lopez said. “ … I think that’s a pretty positive loss, if there’s such a thing.”

Portland head coach Terry Stotts didn’t sound disappointed in his team’s performance as much as he sounded as though this one was a toss-up between two titans of the league.

“There wasn’t a lot separating the two teams,” Stotts said. “I thought both teams played very well and made big plays on both ends. The entire game was a tightly-played game. So I don’t know if there was one or two things separating the teams.”

David West – who scored 30 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in Friday’s win – seemed to agree, saying that the Pacers earned a hard-fought victory over one of the NBA’s finest squads.

“Obviously they’re one of the best teams in the NBA,” West said. “They’ve got two All-Stars, two guys who are basically at the top in terms of their positions. We knew we were going to have our hands full. We just wanted to play as hard as we could and try to come off the floor with a tough home win.”

Indiana got that tough home win against a team that sees what the Pacers are doing, and sees itself beginning to do the same.

“The Pacers approach every game like it’s a playoff game, a championship game,” Matthews said. “And we’re getting to that point. I’m not going to say it’s new territory for us; I mean it kind of is. We didn’t have the greatest season last year, but we set the bar high for ourselves and we expect a lot out of ourselves.”

Matthews’ statement begs the question that must have crossed every spectator’s mind, both at The Fieldhouse and possibly those watching from afar: What if these two teams met in the NBA Finals?

The atmosphere surrounding this bout was playoff-esque, and if Hoosiers entering the arena fought frigid temperatures to get there, the game itself had more of an early-Summer feel to it than early February.

“It was a playoff atmosphere,” Hill said. “That’s one of the best teams in the West, if not the best. So it’s good to get a great win like that, and it took a great team effort from us to do it.”

The matchup most fans are waiting for is a Pacers-Heat rematch in the Eastern Conference Finals. But if we’re to take what we’ve seen from the Pacers and Trail Blazers in head-to-head battle so far and extrapolate forward, an Indiana-Portland series for the NBA championship could be one for the ages.

In fact, these two teams are similar in some respects to the teams that met in the Super Bowl last Sunday: Portland is the highest-scoring team in the NBA, and the Pacers boast the league’s best defense by far.

“I think we take it as a challenge as being seen as one of the best teams in the league,” Lillard said of the Blazers’ collective mindset as they come into their own as an elite unit. “The Pacers have the best record in the league, and we have a pretty good record ourselves. When we see teams like them and Miami and Oklahoma City, it’s that type of game.”

It was that type of game Friday in Indianapolis. And it was that type of game in early December in Portland. And both were that type of game because of what Lillard said next:

“Because we want them, and they want us.”

Maybe on some level we all want these two teams. Best of seven. For all the marbles.

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