Unselfish Pacers Share the Wealth

by Wheat Hotchkiss

December 29, 2013 | 12:40 a.m.

After a 105-91 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, Pacers coach Frank Vogel praised his teams’ second-half defensive effort. Tomorrow’s headlines will likely be about the emerging star of Lance Stephenson and the strong performance of George Hill.

SEE ALSO: Hill's Just a Guard »

But for the 18,165 in attendance at a sold-out Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the lasting memories of the Pacers’ win will be the passes.

Whether it was Lance Stephenson’s perfect lob to Paul George for an emphatic, two-handed dunk or Luis Scola doing his best Andrew Luck impersonation with a one-handed full-court outlet to a streaking George for another easy slam, the Pacers shared the wealth early and often Saturday night, entertaining the capacity crowd with several highlight-reel dishes.

Indiana finished with 28 assists on 38 baskets, one short of their season high, set last week against Houston. Sharing the basketball led to a potent and balanced offensive attack, as the Pacers shot 54 percent from the field and all five Pacers starters finished in double figures. George (24 points), Stephenson (23), and Hill (21) each topped the 20-point plateau.

“We’re a team-first team,” Vogel said after the win. “That’s what these guys care about…They care about that identity and they want to play that way, but we also have the resources to do it. Everybody is a threat at all times.”

That’s especially true lately. The Pacers have dominated over their four-game winning streak, prevailing by an average margin of 22.8 points per game. After topping 100 points just six times in their first 25 games, Indiana has surpassed the century mark in each of the past four games, averaging 107 points per contest.

A big part of that offensive boost has come from better passing and offensive execution. The Pacers have averaged 25.5 assists in their last four outings, while shooting 48.7 percent from the field.

Are their assists up because they’re making more shots or are they making more shots because they’re getting better looks? Pacers forward David West, who had 10 points, seven rebounds, and six assists Saturday night, said it’s a bit of both.

“We’ve been moving the ball better lately,” West said. “…The ball’s moving, guys are taking shots when they’re there, that’s what our offense is built for.”

It’s not rocket science to say that making each other better is the mark of a good team. That much was clear Saturday night. The Pacers assisted on 74 percent of their made field goals. On the other side, the Nets — a team with a high payroll but an unraveling locker room — assisted on just 13 of 36 made field goals (36 percent).

Lance Stephenson was again the catalyst Saturday night, as he’s been through much of this recent run.

Less than a minute into the game, Stephenson grabbed a defensive rebound and saw West streaking back up the opposite end. Stephenson lofted a pristine, two-handed outlet pass 60 feet just over the fingertips of two Nets defenders and right into the hands of West, who calmly layed the ball in.

Stephenson had five assists in the first quarter, and dropped seven of the Pacers’ 14 dimes before halftime. He flirted with his fourth triple-double of the season, finishing with an impressive 23-9-7 line.

“I told myself today I’m going to come out aggressive and make plays for others,” Stephenson said.

“Right now I’m being very consistent. I watch film and I’m trying to bring something to the table every game — if it’s assists, if it’s rebounds, defense or points.”

Added West: “Particularly I thought tonight he came out with the right focus and just made the right reads, made the right plays when they were there to be made.”

When the Nets took the lead in the second quarter, it was the Pacers’ deft passing that helped them regain the lead. West twice kicked the ball out to shooters, resulting in a three from Danny Granger and a four-point play from Paul George. Two possessions later, the Pacers caught the Nets napping as Stephenson lofted a perfect lob to George to push the lead to four.

Still, there are times when the Pacers try to do too much with their passes, like when Stephenson tried another lob on the ensuing possession to Hill, who isn’t graced with George’s leaping ability. In fact 12 of Indiana’s 17 turnovers came on bad passes, a sign that maybe they’re trying to do too much.

West said the turnovers are something that need to be fixed, and the Pacers will watch plenty of film to pinpoint the exact issue (West thinks they’re occasionally making the right read a little too late, allowing just enough lag time for a defender to jump the passing lane). But at least the turnovers are coming from a well-intentioned place.

“I think we’re trying to play the right way,” West said.

And to their credit, the Pacers corrected the course on both ends in the second half. The Pacers had 10 turnovers and forced Brooklyn into just four before halftime. In the second half, Indiana had 14 assists and seven turnovers, while forcing Brooklyn into nine giveaways.

There were plenty more highlight-reel passes in the second half. In one fourth-quarter sequence, Scola fired a 75-foot one-handed pass to George and on the next possession George rifled the ball inside to a cutting Granger for a layup plus the foul.

The Pacers’ balanced offense is firing on all cylinders. Coming into Saturday night, some might have expected the Pacers to feed big man Roy Hibbert against a Brooklyn team missing injured centers Brook Lopez and Andray Blatche. When the Nets took that away, Hibbert and his teammates simply looked elsewhere, always moving the ball to the open man.

“I think every night we’re clicking,” Stephenson said. “We’re very unselfish and we don’t care who has the high (point total). We’re just playing ball. Nobody’s selfish on this team.”

Four straight games. Four straight romps. Are the Pacers at the peak of their powers? George Hill doesn’t think so.

“I don’t think we’ve played our best basketball all season,” Hill said. “I feel like we can get a lot better. We know that, and that’s what we have to challenge each other to do.”

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