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Pacers Share a Happy Meal

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

March 22, 2014 | 12:15 a.m.

“Everybody was dining on the game plan,” Ian Mahinmi said.

“Other guys got to eat, too,” Roy Hibbert said.

Well, ok. If this is going to be food analogy night, how about this? The Pacers sat down together to break bread on Friday. They passed the plates around generously, with nobody pigging out on extra portions, and wound up enjoying more camaraderie than they'd experienced at home in about six weeks.

Their 91-79 victory over Chicago at Bankers Life Fieldhouse went a long way toward easing the queasy feeling they'd been experiencing, and while hardly enough to qualify as a trend, it was at least a step in the right direction – which for them is backward, to November and December, when they accumulated the best record in the NBA.

The difference from their loss in New York on Wednesday, or even the four wins that preceded it, was dramatic. The starters all took between nine and 13 shots, and scored between 10 and 15 points. They took just 11 three-point shots, matching the fewest attempts this season, but got to the foul line for 25 attempts, hitting 21. They also held the Bulls to 35 percent shooting and controlled the boards 51-36.

Photo Gallery: Pacers 91, Bulls 79 »

“It was just playing for one another,” said Paul George, who hit just 3-of-13 shots but constructed his first triple-double of the season with 10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. “Once we did that, the energy brought us up. Once you make a play for a couple of guys and guys make plays for you, you start to get a swagger and your energy picks up. That trickled to the defensive end for us, and we got back to playing like we used to play.”

The about-face had a few motivating factors. The frustration of losing in New York on national television. Playing a good team such as the Bulls after five consecutive games against losing teams. The fact that just 13 regular season games remain before the playoffs, and that time is running out to regain momentum.

Hibbert had voiced complaints about his limited role in the offense to pacers.com following Monday's narrow win over Philadelphia, and again to the media assembled in Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. Coach Frank Vogel, however, was quick to remind that the fault for lethargic offense didn't always rest with the ballhandler, but also with teammates who weren't setting screens or moving.

The offense flowed on Friday, as the Pacers compiled 27 assists. And if anyone gets credit, it's George, who had been sneaking extra portions on occasion. He and Vogel talked on Thursday, and Vogel told him about his experience coaching Paul Pierce in Boston and Danny Granger after taking over the Pacers' head coaching position. They then, like George now, had to learn to ignore some of their thirst on offense as the talent around them improved.

George was a quick study. He still got up a team-high number of shots, but forced few of them. He set the team-first tone early, passing out three assists in the first quarter and finishing with more (10) than the other starters combined.

“I had a long talk with Coach,” he said afterward. “It was all about being efficient.”

George is ambitious, wants to be great, and wants to lead the Pacers somewhere special. But that sometimes has caused him to force the offense, either by taking awkward shots off the dribble or plowing through the lane toward the basket and hoping to draw a foul. Great players do that sort of thing, and George wants to be considered a great player. But it wasn't helping the Pacers, who have four other legitimate scoring weapons in the starting lineup.

“I'm kind of upset that I hadn't approached the game like this awhile back,” George said. “It just made the game that much easier for myself. I didn't make the shots that I wanted to make, but I put myself in a rhythm as far as looking for guys, coming off screens and being patient offensively.

“I've been taking tough shots. Now I'm trying to get back to taking the best shot available, whether it's my shot or moving it along to a teammate.”

The balance the Pacers exhibited on Friday won't be achieved every game from here on, and Vogel doesn't necessarily want it to be. Some games will present favorable matchups for certain players, and it won't be a sin for someone to get up 20 shots. But it was indicative of a renewed focus on sharing, the kind that had vaulted the Pacers to the top of the Eastern Conference standings at the start of the season. And it resulted in a happy meal, full of smiles, high-fives and even a few chest-bumps.

Hibbert, disconsolate even in victory on Monday, and again in defeat on Wednesday, was fully satisfied this time.

“It's human nature to want to be involved,” he said. “When people are involved, they play a lot harder.”

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