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Pacers Confident, But Calm

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

November 24, 2013

They trailed by four with less than seven minutes to go? Against these guys? A losing team playing without one of its first-round draft picks and three players averaging a combined 43.7 points?

The Pacers insist they didn't take Philadelphia lightly before escaping from Bankers Life Fieldhouse with a 106-98 victory Saturday. They preferred to give the 76ers credit for surprising them and annoying them with a small, unfamiliar lineup that made the game seem like a relentless bee attack. Sure, their record is 12-1. Get back to them when they've done something in the playoffs.

“We can't (overlook anyone),” David West said. “We're not good enough to do that. And we know that. These teams are going to fight us. These are pro teams we're playing. No games are going to be easy. We just have to stay locked in together and hope our defense and how hard we play pulls us through.”

Which is exactly what happened against the 76ers. With Philadelphia leading by four points with 7:06 left, and by three with 6:36 left, the Pacers basically got together and decided they'd had enough. Roy Hibbert took Paul George's penetrating hand-off, dunked the ball, drew a foul, and hit the free throw to tie the game. Hibbert then rebounded Evan Turner's miss, which led to George's three-pointer from in front of Philly's bench off Lance Stephenson's feed. Hibbert then rebounded Daniel Orton's missed layup, drew a foul, and hit two more foul shots for a five-point lead. Two more foul shots from Hibbert and a three-point play from West, and the lead was 10 with 3:12 left.

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And that was pretty much that, although the 76ers did get back within four points with 1:43 remaining.

This is where the Pacers are now amid the best start in franchise history. Supremely confident, yet adequately humble. Philly (6-9) gave them reason to stay that way. It scored 11 more points than other teams have averaged against them and outscored them 31-13 on second-chance points and 19-10 on fastbreak points.

After taking that four-point lead, however, the 76ers hit just two of their final 14 shots. The Pacers saw to that.

“We just pressured up,” George said. “George (Hill) pressured up. I pressured up. Lance (Stephenson) pressured up. We felt their wings had been comfortable out there all night. We came together and just told each other to pressure up and be tough.

“We know how to stay on the same page and turn it on when we need to.”

If that sounds cocky, that's the sentiment that was heard throughout the locker room, spoken quietly and matter-of-factly.

“There was no doubt in our minds we were going to win this game,” said Hibbert, who scored a season-high 27 points and set career highs for free throws made (13) and attempted (16). “We've played together for awhile and we know what to do.

“Teams may stick around, they may get up on us early, but we're always focused and ready to win.”

The Pacers have come a long way in a year. On Nov. 23, 2012, they blew a 17-point third-quarter lead and lost a home game to San Antonio to drop to 6-8. That turned out to be their low point of the season. They won three of their next four games, all on the road, beginning the climb toward a 49-32 record and Game 7 showdown in the Eastern Conference finals.

They're still starting the same lineup that started that game against the Spurs, but now they play with the quiet swagger of a team that expects to win. They know they'll defend, especially when absolutely necessary, and figure they have enough weapons to score enough points to justify the defensive effort. They proved that on Saturday when all five starters took between 10 and 13 field goal attempts, scored in double figures and made key plays at one end or the other in the final minutes.

When a team is 12-1, all criticisms tend to sound like nit-picking. Coach Frank Vogel, positive guy that he is, isn't just walking around and patting them on the back every day, though. The Pacers have the NBA's best defense, based on points and field goal percentage allowed, but rank just 22nd in three-point defense. Philly hit just 4-of-25 on Saturday, but Vogel didn't want to take too much credit for that. Sometimes teams miss open shots. So, they can improve there. They also rank 28th in free throw defense. Yeah, that's it. Gotta defend free throws better, coach! Offensively, they rank 20th in scoring, which really isn't bad for a mid-tempo team, and 14th in field goal percentage. So, yeah, they can hit more shots.

The bench certainly can get better, and remains a work in progress. Vogel allowed himself the luxury of an in-game experiment on Saturday, keeping backup center Ian Mahinmi on the bench so that he could play power forwards West and Luis Scola together. It's too early to say how it will work out. Scola played a couple more minutes than usual (20:39), but missed all four of his shots and scored just three points. Vogel said Mahinmi will be back in the rotation on Monday for the game with Minnesota.

So, yeah, they've hardly peaked. They're not like the 1999-2000 Pacers team that was basically as good as it was going to get all season and was just biding time until the playoffs arrived. This team is still learning.

“We're nowhere close to where we want to be,” George said. “We gave up 50 points in the first half to this team. Our defense is supposed to be No. 1. It's just us being consistent and playing a full 48. We have yet to play a full 48 minutes of basketball.”

But then again, they are 12-1, with a home game against the Timberwolves on Monday, a road game at Charlotte (7-7) on Wednesday and another home game with Washington (5-8) on Friday before heading west for the truth-revealing challenge of a five-game road trip through Los Angeles to play the Clippers, Portland, Utah, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

Fact is, the Pacers really haven't been seriously tested yet. They will be soon, though. Perhaps that's why they're maintaining a calm reserve.

“What are you enjoying the most about this?” West was asked after Saturday's game.

He paused to search for an answer.

“Nothing's satisfying about it,” he said. “I'm happy we're winning the game in front of us. That's about it. We have a lot of basketball left, a lot of games to be played.”

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.

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