Taking Care of Business: Pacers Winning the Small Ones, Too

by Manny Randhawa

December 31, 2013

On New Year’s Eve one year ago, the Pacers were 18-13. Of their 13 losses to that point, five had come at the hands of teams that finished the season below .500.

One of those teams is the Charlotte Bobcats, who defeated the Pacers on Nov. 2, 2012, 90-89. Charlotte would win only 20 more times the entire season, finishing 40 games below .500.

Another team that beat the Pacers before New Year’s Day 2013 was the Toronto Raptors, who would finish the season 34-48. In a game that featured two quarters in which each team failed to score 20 points, Toronto held on for a 74-72 win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Nov. 13, 2012.

In their home opener ten days earlier, the Pacers nearly let another game against a sub-.500 opponent slip away, needing two overtime periods to squeak past the Sacramento Kings (who would finish the season 28-54) 106-98.

On Nov. 9 last season, the Pacers dropped a 96-94 decision to the Minnesota Timberwolves. And this Timberwolves team wasn’t the team that you see today – it finished 31-51 in the 2012-13 campaign.

What a difference a year makes.

On Tuesday, as the Pacers closed out 2013 with an afternoon game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, three quarters of basketball yielded a one-point deficit for Indiana.

The Cavs – who came into the game with a 10-20 record (2-14 in road games) – kept hanging around, trying to push the tempo and outrebound the Pacers to put themselves in a position to upset the squad with the best record in the Eastern Conference.

But then the Pacers did something they may not have been able to do at this point last season: they blew Cleveland away in the fourth quarter.

Indiana outscored the Cavs 26-10 in the closing period to run away with a 91-76 victory, improving to 25-5 on the season – seven games better than they were a year ago.

It was reminiscent of – well just a couple of weeks ago, when on Dec. 13 the Bobcats were doing the same thing the Cavaliers did Tuesday. Charlotte managed to stay in the game until late in the fourth quarter, when the Pacers finally pulled away for a 99-94 win.

The Pacers are clearly a more talented and deeper team this season. But there’s more to their ability to close out the Cavaliers and Bobcats of the world; namely: experience with – and confidence in – one another.

“We understand it’s a long game, whether we’re up or whether we’re down,” said Paul George after scoring a game-high 21 points in the win over the Cavs. “The only thing we do is stay consistent and continue to be us. We continue to run our stuff. We don’t bicker. If teams go on runs, we find a way to counter, and go on one of our own. I think us just staying together and us being through so much now, it just seems like there’s a point in the game that we all pull each other together and get the job done.”

The core unit that the Pacers have returned from last season has been around the block before. And while it’s relatively easy to get up for a game against, say, the Heat, Thunder, or Spurs, there’s a different dynamic in contests against, well, pretty much any team in the East that isn’t from South Beach.

But this season’s Pacers are taking care of business when it comes to putting away teams they should beat. Of their five losses so far, only one has come to a sub-.500 team: the Pistons.

“I think we’ve been more together this year,” George Hill said. “Everyone’s clicking on the right cylinders on the defensive end. I think we’ve been communicating very well and holding each other accountable down there. So I think when you’re all on the same page and all moving on the same string, you’re going to be a tough team to beat.”

The Pacers are a tough team to beat, to say the least. And much of the reason why is that so far they’ve been able to win the games they’re supposed to win nearly every chance they get, when an 82-game NBA schedule normally dictates that there will be some sub-.500 bumps in the road for even the most elite of teams.

Take the two-time defending champs, for example.

The Heat are right on Indiana’s tail in the early race for the top playoff seed in the East, with a 24-7 record. Of their seven losses, however, six have come to teams with records currently below .500 (the 76ers, Nets, Celtics, Pistons, Bulls, and Kings). The only team that currently has a winning record and has beaten the Heat? The Pacers.

The common thread in the locker room appears to be that the Pacers have an unspoken confidence in each other, knowing that whatever the scoreboard reads as they enter the critical final minutes of a game, they’ll find a way to notch another win as they march toward their stated goal of finishing at the top of the conference standings come Spring.

“We work hard, we know each other, and we know what’s best for us,” said Lance Stephenson. “The game comes in a flow.”

Ian Mahinmi – who was productive off the bench for Indiana Tuesday afternoon with six points, four rebounds and a block in just under 13 minutes on the floor – echoed his teammates’ sentiment about experience and confidence in one another.

“One more year playing together is a factor,” he said. “Knowing each other better, believing in the system Coach has put in place. And also this year we’re more experienced and we stay the course. We never get too high and we never get too low. And I think that’s a big part of why we’re able to get some separation down the stretch.”

“We’re experienced,” said Roy Hibbert, who had 19 points and five blocks Tuesday. “We try not to make the same mistakes that we did the year before, the game before. Everybody’s confident, and if we do go to an overtime, we can handle our business.”

Business is being handled by these Pacers, whether they’re playing the best in the game on national television or the Cavaliers on a Tuesday afternoon.

And that makes for a Happy New Year, indeed, in Indiana.

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