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A Win for the Ages

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

April 10, 2013, 2:31 AM

The coach had gotten himself ejected to the locker room, thousands of fans had ejected themselves to their cars, and Twitter was on fire.

The Pacers, it seemed, were about to undo an entire season's worth of achievement with three consecutive collapses, just in time to inspire panic for the playoffs. Following a 22-point loss to Oklahoma City and a 19-point loss to Washington, they now were trailing lowly Cleveland by 20 with less than nine minutes remaining.

What happened next amounted to perhaps the best comeback in franchise history: a 17-0 run that led to a 35-10 fourth quarter advantage that resulted in a 99-94 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which all in all soothed a lot of doubts and nerves.

Sure, it helped that they were playing a team with a rare talent for givebacks. Cleveland, one of the NBA's youngest teams, had lost leads of 27 (to Miami) 26 and 22 points earlier this season, so this was nothing new. Still, it was a momentous accomplishment for the Pacers, who needed something to relight their flickering flame. They celebrated it like a playoff win, hugging and shoving one another the way players do, save for Roy Hibbert, who literally jumped on Jeff Pendergraph's back. Seemed only fair, since Pendergraph had carried the burden for Hibbert, who didn't play in the fourth quarter because he didn't fit the style of play needed for the comeback.

“I thought it might have been OJ or somebody smaller,” said Jeff Pendergraph, who came off the bench to make one of the comeback's greatest contributions. “Next thing I know, I heard Roy (shouting) and I thought, 'I have to fall before I lose my legs or something.' I've never seen him move that fast, either.

“Games like this can crack teams, especially right now this close to the end of the season. But it brought us together.”

The Pacers might be headed toward a third consecutive season of improvement and a likely third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, but with 2:52 remaining in the third quarter they were being booed by the home fans during a timeout. They trailed by 15 points at the time and had just committed a careless over-and-back turnover.

That's when coach Frank Vogel, who wore a red tie in honor of his coaching mentor Rick Pitino's NCAA tournament championship victory on Monday – Louisville colors, you know – decided to “change the game.” He pulled all four starters and went with a lineup of Orlando Johnson, Gerald Green, D.J. Augustin, Ian Manhimi and Tyler Hansbrough. Shortly thereafter he went for an even greater change by making a big enough scene over a foul call on Ian Manhimi to get himself kicked out of the game.

Vogel now leads NBA coaches in technical fouls, and whatever that ejection cost him was a savvy investment. It didn't have an immediate impact, as the Cavaliers extended their lead to 20 by the end of the period, and held it 3 ½ minutes into the fourth. But, along with the lineup overhauls, it helped inspire the U-turn.

“You have to change the game,” he said. “We've been in several situations this year where we've been up 20 with a lot of time on the clock. When we've struggled to hold leads is when coaches change the game – whether you empty the bench, play zone, play small lineups, you have to change the game. Sometimes it doesn't work, sometimes it changes the momentum. We went with our bench, and I over-reacted to some calls.

“I knew there was a lot of time left.”

Time enough for nearly everyone who played to pitch in.

The comeback officially began when Augustin picked off a steal in Cleveland's halfcourt and converted a layup with 8:39 remaining. Hansbrough followed with another steal in the halfcourt, which led to Augustin's three-pointer at 7:38. It was suddenly a 15-point game, and the Cavs began melting. The Pacers simply began taking the ball to the basket as aggressively as possible for the rest of the game. They scored 19 fast break points in the quarter, eight more than they average per game.

“Coach has challenged us to be a running team all year long,” said George Hill, who finished with 27 points, four assists, four steals and no turnovers. “Once he got ejected, B Shaw (assistant coach Brian) said the way we practice is the way we've got to play. In practice they challenge us to do a nine-second drill, and get a shot in nine seconds, and we took advantage of that.”

Kyrie Irving, who finished with 29 points but had eight turnovers – three in the fourth quarter – interrupted the Pacers' comeback with a 16-foot jumper over Hill with 4:11 left. The Pacers faltered, scoring one point over their next four possessions, but eventually took the lead when Lance Stephenson got another steal and lofted a pass to the streaking Hill, who hit a layup, drew a foul and converted the three-point play for a 93-92 lead with 46.5 seconds left.

Irving, drawing a foul from David West on a drive to the basket after faking Hill out of the play, hit two free throws to return the lead to Cleveland, but the Pacers followed with their biggest offensive play of the game. Following a timeout with 37.6 seconds remaining, Hill drove to his left off West's pick, drew George's defender and floated a pass to George in the left corner, in front of Cleveland's bench. George, slumping lately, swished a three-pointer for a 96-94 lead.

“Even though the last couple of games it hasn't been falling, I still believe every shot he shoots in going to go in and he did what every good player is supposed to do: make it,” Hill said.

Pendergraph, who played only the final 8:08, followed with the defensive play of the game, stepping in front of Irving's drive to draw a charge with 16.8 seconds left. He was barely outside the arc beneath the basket, close enough that the referees reviewed the replay monitor to make sure.

Victory wasn't assured, however, until Wayne Ellington missed a three-pointer with 7.9 seconds left. The Pacers now can clinch the third seed in the East with a homecourt victory over Brooklyn on Friday. New York will have to fold for them to reach the No. 2 spot, an unlikely scenario given the Knicks' 13-game winning streak, but for now the Pacers' emphasis has to be getting back to being themselves again.

That would have been far more difficult had they suffered a third consecutive blowout loss. George called the malaise a “funk.” Vogel said his team had been “stuck in the mud.” Whatever the terminology, it hadn't been pretty, and it was on the verge of becoming troubling.

“We recognize we're not playing well right now,” Vogel said. “It's good to learn lessons and get a wake- up call and still get a W.”

No doubt, it was a win for the ages. It only means something, however, if its impact lasts beyond Tuesday.

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