If Only For a Playoff Game, Scola and Watson Give Bird Return on Investment

by Manny Randhawa | @MannyRsports

April 23, 2014 | 12:32 a.m.

With everything else that had gone wrong on Saturday night after Game 1 of the opening round playoff series between the Pacers and Hawks, Luis Scola had an individual problem: In 19 minutes on the floor that night, the midrange jumpshooter was shutout. He had attempted six field goals, and made not a one.

So when he entered Game 2 at the 2:14 mark of the first quarter for David West, no one knew it would be Scola that would almost single-handedly keep the Pacers from a double-digit deficit in the first half of what was a must-win game. A loss Tuesday night would have sent Indiana to Philips Arena – a building in which the franchise has won exactly one time since 2006 – down two games to none.

Scola proceeded to hit his first four shots en route to a 20 point performance on 9-of-14 from the field in the Pacers’ desperately-needed 101-85 rout of Atlanta at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

When Scola entered the contest, the Pacers trailed 21-15. Over the next 4 minutes and 54 seconds of play, both the Pacers and Hawks scored 19 points each. Scola scored 13 of Indiana’s 19 points over that span.

By the end of the first half, the Hawks had shot 50 percent from the field, and had connected on eight out of 15 3-point attempts. Had Scola not come to the rescue on offense, who knows what might’ve ensued before intermission?

From 0-for-6 in Game 1 to 9-of-14 in Game 2, just when the Pacers – a team Scola and C.J. Watson, in particular, were brought to in order to bolster a relatively weak bench precisely during a playoff run – needed him.

Scola isn’t one to wax poetic about why Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird brought him from Phoenix to Indiana after last season’s second unit – which couldn’t be relied upon in the deep playoff run that ended in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals – was dismantled in favor of a new group.

But he knows he wasn’t brought here to go 0-for-6 in the team’s first playoff game.

“Somebody asked me if tonight’s game was what they brought me here for,” Scola said following Game 2. “And I answered, ‘I’m not sure what they brought me here for, but I do know why they didn’t bring me here, and that was the way I played in Game 1.’”

And while he was keenly aware of his need to contribute in a meaningful way Tuesday, the way he went about it was business as usual.

“It was a lot of thinking after that game (Game 1),” Scola said. “But on the other hand, I missed a lot of shots that I always make; the same shots I took tonight and I made. I was kind of staying with that mentality that they’re gonna fall; sooner or later they’re gonna fall.”

They fell Tuesday. In fact, of Scola’s five misses, three were in traffic underneath the basket.

Watson didn’t take nearly as many shots as Scola on the night, but he did hit two big 3-pointers in the first half, each one bringing the Pacers – who at those points hadn’t led since taking a 7-0 lead to open the game – within 3.

Watson finished the night 2-for-5 for 10 points in just under 28 minutes, and teamed with Scola to give the Pacers 30 much-needed points, 19 of which came in the first half and accounted for 40 percent of Indiana’s scoring in the first 24 minutes.

Scola and Watson were the marquee additions to a Pacers bench that was viewed as a liability in 2012-13 and needed bolstering if the team was to hurdle over the two-time defending champion Miami Heat to reach the NBA Finals this year.

But the second unit came under heavy criticism for not performing up to expectations. Scola, in particular, lost the touch on his midrange jumper in January and February, shooting just 38 and 37 percent from the floor, respectively, in those two months after shooting well over 50 percent going into the new calendar year.

Watson had also been inconsistent, shooting just 37 percent in December, bouncing back with a 49 percent clip in January, but dipping in scoring efficiency again in February (43 percent) before missing most of March and some of April with a hamstring injury.

It looked to many as if Bird’s investment in a strengthened bench had failed, and as the postseason got closer, the Pacers might face the same depth issues that ran the starting five ragged in last summer.

But both Scola and Watson have come on strong as of late.

From Apr. 1 to the end of the regular season, Scola shot 56 percent from the field. Watson shot 60 percent in three April games after returning from injury (including 8-of-11 from 3-point range) and was a huge factor in the Pacers’ win over the Thunder in the home finale on Apr. 13, scoring 20 points.

Those two aren’t alone in the bench revival so far in the postseason. Evan Turner, acquired in a trade with Philadelphia for Danny Granger on Feb. 20, hit his only shot in 11-plus minutes on the floor in Game 2 – a corner 3-pointer – and had nine points and seven rebounds in 18-plus minutes in Game 1.

Despite the criticism the bench has taken for its underachievement and inconsistency during the regular season, Scola and Watson don’t really pay attention to that sort of thing. In fact, they don’t even really consider first and second unit distinctions in that sense at all.

“We just want to win, just like everybody else,” Scola said. “We don’t believe in, like, bench and starters. We believe we’re all together and we were down one (game), and we played hard, the whole team, and we won. And that’s what we care about, not if the points came from the bench or the starters. We just want to win.

“… I just see another player from the team; not another player on the bench or a player that wasn’t here last year. I just look at ourselves like a total unit and I’m happy that we had a good game.”

Watson doesn’t think about external voices evaluating Bird’s return on investment either. He just focuses on the day-to-day preparation he needs to put in to help the Pacers reach their lofty goals.

“I never really thought about (the criticism of the bench),” Watson said. “I just try to go out there and play. I’m sure that Luis is the same way. I know that they tried to improve the bench, but I think we just try to go out there and play our games, whatever that is, and just try to make the best decisions we can on the court and most of the time, it turns out right.”

Watson agreed with Scola that within the Pacers locker room, it isn’t about first unit or second unit, regardless of how it’s viewed on the outside.

“We’re just all trying to go out there and play our games and play well and help the team win,” he said. “Because at the end of the day, we’re trying to win something bigger than individual stats and individual numbers.”

At the end of the day, it’s about an NBA title for Scola, Watson, and the rest of the Pacers. And had it not been for those two, in particular, in Game 2 Tuesday night, the hope of reaching that goal could have taken a serious, and possibly irreparable blow.

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