Pacers’ Blowout of Nuggets a Swift Response to Orlando Loss

by Manny Randhawa | @MannyRsports

February 11, 2014 | 12:10 a.m.

In what was arguably their worst loss of the season Sunday night, the owners of the NBA’s best record blew a 17-point third-quarter lead over a team that was 15-37. After Paul George’s last-second, 18-foot jumper to salvage the game missed, the Pacers left the Amway Center in Orlando, boarded a plane, and went home. They arrived in Indianapolis around 12:30 a.m. Monday morning.

Eighteen and a half hours later, those same Pacers throttled the Denver Nuggets, shooting 58 percent and holding Denver to just 32 percent from the field in a 119-80 demolition.

Over the course of an 82-game season, the best of NBA teams lose to mediocre competition. That’s what happened to Indiana in a 93-92 loss to the Magic. The defeat dropped the Pacers to 39-11. No big deal.

For the Pacers, any and every loss is a big deal.

“We were all disappointed about the way that game went,” said David West, who scored a game-high 25 points on a tidy 11-of-13 shooting in Monday’s win. “We knew we had let an opportunity slip away.”

That opportunity was the chance to gain another half-game on the idle Miami Heat in Indiana’s quest for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, a team goal that has been broadcast far and wide, to every corner of the league on the merits of what transpired in Game 7 of last season’s Eastern Conference Finals (Miami lost to the Utah Jazz on Saturday and the Pacers had the chance to pad their lead to four games).

“We were just kind of coasting through points of that game,” West added. “We just didn’t want the same let-down tonight.”

Let-down? No. More like beat-down, of the poor Nuggets, who you kind of have to feel for given what they had coming their way.

Six of the Pacers’ 11 losses this season have come on the back end of a back-to-back set of games. That’s what the Denver contest represented Monday.

But this back-to-back lost its bite, and playing their third game in four days did not deter the Pacers from righting a grievous wrong in their book.

“We started the game off Sunday night playing how we play,” George said of the Orlando loss. “I just thought we got too relaxed toward the end of the third quarter and allowed a team to creep back and gain confidence. A lot of guys just tried to make plays on their own. We just got away from what we do.”

Lance Stephenson used the same word that George did to describe what happened Sunday: relaxed.

“We just didn’t play hard at the end of the Orlando game because of the score,” Stephenson said. “We were up 17 and we got relaxed. Now we know: when we’re up, we’ve got to keep playing hard because anything can happen.”

The Pacers relaxed against Orlando. Don’t look for that to happen again, not even when they’re up 21 at halftime against the Nuggets on a Monday night in February. Indiana kept the foot on the gas pedal in the second half, and outscored Denver by 18 over the final 24 minutes.

“I just thought we played with the right attitude and came out aggressive,” said West. “We made the plays that were there to be made. We moved the ball, shared the ball. We got off to a good start in that first quarter, which has been a little bit of a struggle for us this year. I thought we played a complete game tonight. Defensively, we didn’t let our guard down because the Nuggets were undermanned. I just thought we were professional about that approach.”

The Pacers’ dominance over the Nuggets was all-encompassing. Granted, Denver was without its best player – Ty Lawson – leaving the team without a true point guard. But something more than losing your talented point guard has to happen for an NBA squad that soundly defeated the Pacers 109-96 not three weeks earlier to be trounced by 39 this time around.

Denver was 27-for-85 from the field, and the 31.5 percent the Nuggets shot from the floor was ever so close to the lowest field goal percentage the Pacers have allowed this season: 31.3 percent, against the Bobcats on Nov. 27.

Meanwhile, Indiana was 44-of-78 (57.8 percent), and the 119 points the Pacers hung on the scoreboard was a season-high. The Pacers also outrebounded the Nuggets by 20, 55-35.

“I think the tough loss actually spurred us on,” Danny Granger said. “When you lose like that, a game where you’re up by 17 and you let the game slip away against a team you should beat, it kind of lights a fire in you. That’s what it’s supposed to do, and it did that tonight.”

So how did Frank Vogel, who has instilled in his group the unequivocal importance of capturing home court advantage throughout the playoffs – and the realization that each and every game could be the difference between winning that prize and finishing just short behind the defending champion Heat – right the ship following a loss that was so difficult to swallow?

By not overemphasizing it.

“We didn’t even watch the film from the loss,” Granger said. “Frank does a good job of not overreacting to losses, just like when you win a big game, you don’t want to be too high … He just said, ‘You’re gonna have to learn from it, you know we should’ve closed the game out. You’ve got to play Denver tonight. Let’s get right to work on Denver.’”

Vogel doesn’t overreact, and neither do the Pacers. But they do talk about it.

“We have great discussions,” Granger added. “When you have a game like that, we talked about it in the locker room after the game Sunday night. Everybody said their words, and we moved on to the next game. And we came out and showed a better effort.”

What words, you ask?

“We always have healthy discussion,” Granger continued. “When I say healthy, I mean we don’t point people out or criticize. We just say, ‘Hey, we lost a game because of this, this and this. We should’ve done this, that or this. It all comes out on the table, everybody takes it, and we move on.”

No bickering. No pointing fingers. Just an acknowledgment of an unacceptable lapse along a long road, at the end of which stands the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

The win over the Nuggets was the Pacers’ 40th of the season, and in mid-February they are just nine games shy of their win total from the entire 2012-13 regular season.

But those numbers don’t matter to this team. Because the number of wins it will take to claim the top seed in the East is an unknown integer. That’s why the Pacers had to do what they did to Denver on Monday night.

“We were dialed-in,” said Stephenson of the performance. “ … We were definitely mad about how we produced at the end of the game Sunday. We had to take it out on Denver …

“Every game matters.”

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