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Meeting Fuels Pacers Revival

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 3, 2014 | 12:30 a.m.

If this was the turnaround they had been desperately seeking, the darkness-leading-to-dawn moment that revives their hopes and dreams, it began on Tuesday, an off day, in the still of their locker room.

The Pacers' starters met with coach Frank Vogel that day to try to put the genie back in the bottle of their season, one that reflected legitimate championship aspirations until about mid-February before going awry. After losing six-of-eight games and forfeiting their lead in the Eastern Conference, they had seemingly lost their mojo, their chemistry, their road map, something.

It's not too much of a stretch to say the meeting was the turning point of the their 101-94 victory over Detroit at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday. While there was a general reluctance among the starters to divulge details, they did walk away from it feeling a shift in their emotional barometer.

“We were able to have a great talk yesterday as a team and kind of build each other back up,” Paul George said after finishing with 27 points, 13 rebounds and a game-high seven assists, and playing like the Paul George who had inspired MVP talk early in the season. “It was a great vibe tonight.”

“Everybody spoke out,” added Lance Stephenson, who fueled the 10-0 second-quarter run that turned out to be the game's turning point. “We talked about how we felt, everybody individually. It wasn’t just one person. We all spoke out.”

Skeptics can be forgiven for not wanting to bite on this one too hard. The Pacers appeared to have “returned” in their win over Chicago on March 21, but they followed with losses at Memphis and Chicago. The win over Miami on March 26 seemed like a trend-setter, too, but they followed with discouraging performances in road losses to Washington and Cleveland and then a 26-point homecourt loss to San Antonio they acknowledged as “embarrassing.”

Will this win be different? Will it set them straight for the final six regular season games and give them momentum heading into the playoffs? Will it make everyone forget about all the drama – real and imagined – of the past few weeks?

Nobody in the locker room was making predictions, but it felt that way. Even David West, the grizzled guru who had described the Pacers as “probably the most downtrodden 50-plus win team in the history of the game” following the loss to the Spurs, was feeling good.

“We're a pretty positive, upbeat group,” he said. “We've just been in a funk and our energy hasn't been great, which has affected our play. We just have to focus on having fun, competing and giving ourselves a chance to win every night.”

A seven-point win over Detroit (27-48) might not seem like a launching pad toward greater heights, but the Pistons have more talent than their record reveals, and had the frontline muscle to take a nine-point first quarter lead. The momentum shifted, though, when Stephenson recaptured his reckless energy of November and December to lead the 10-0 charge that overcame a five-point deficit.

He drove the lane for a dunk out of the halfcourt offense to get it started. He followed by stealing a rebound in traffic at Detroit's end, rushing the ball upcourt – remember that? – driving the lane and feeding George for a three-pointer from the left corner. He then rebounded another Detroit miss from underneath the basket, took a moment to glare at Pistons center Andre Drummond who was falling backward out of bounds, then rushed upcourt again, took the ball between his legs and fed Ian Mahinmi for a layup.

The Pacers led 45-35, the Pistons called timeout, the fans went crazy and a season was saved. Oh, wait. That's going too far. But it felt that way. And fate intervened as well after Hibbert rebounded his own missed shot off the rim and passed out to George, who noticed the shot clock had not been reset and drained a 35-footer – just as the clock was reset.

That 3-pointer gave the Pacers a four-point lead with 3:19 left, one they preserved with midrange jumpers and free throws.

There had been hints of a turnaround in the losses to Cleveland and San Antonio. They had shared the ball better in those games, but didn't shoot well enough to make the generosity pay off. This time they hit just under 50 percent from the field, ending a franchise-record six-game streak of games under 40 percent, which enabled them to pass out 24 assists. All five starters scored in double figures, as often happens in their most impressive wins, although they insist that's never a goal. The bench played well, there were just 10 turnovers and the defense limited the Pistons to 37 percent shooting.

It was undeniably like old times, if its possible to be nostalgic for games of just a few months ago.

“Everybody was moving the ball, everybody was getting involved and that energized people to get out on the break and make passes to each other and not do it all ourselves,” Hibbert said. “It feels good. There's definitely a better atmosphere in the locker room and the huddles. One game is good, but we have to string more together.”

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