Offseason Acquisitions Prove Their Worth
by Wheat Hotchkiss
December 11, 2013 | 1:05 a.m.
When looking back on last year’s Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat, the Pacers’ returning core has consistently said they felt they were just a couple plays away from the series having a different result. One made shot here, one stop there, and the Pacers could have been playing in the NBA Finals instead of watching from home.
So it is fitting that a few key plays from a pair of new faces Tuesday night made the difference in the Pacers’ 90-84 win over the Heat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
C.J. Watson and Luis Scola may not have stuffed the stat sheet, but both players made key contributions down the stretch to help lift Indiana to victory.
Pacers President Larry Bird’s main focus this offseason was on upgrading the Pacers’ bench, the perceived weakness in a team that pushed the Heat to seven games in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Bird’s biggest moves in that regard were signing Watson to take over backup point guard duties and trading for Scola to provide a post scorer off the bench.
Both players delivered in the clutch on Tuesday night. Whether it was Watson with a couple key steals and layups on the other end or Scola crashing the boards and making quick decisions, the two sixth-year pros earned their keep.
“Tonight was a glimpse of us improving our second unit,” Pacers star forward Paul George said after the game. “They really made big plays down the stretch to help us win tonight.”
The ledes will talk about George’s strong second half and Roy Hibbert’s 24 points, but a few key sequences involving Watson and Scola will likely draw some of the highest praise in tomorrow’s film session.
Take, for instance, this fourth quarter stretch:
With the Pacers clinging to a two-point lead with seven minutes to play, Watson intercepted Ray Allen’s pass and took off down the court. Miami guard Norris Cole took an angle to try to swipe at the ball and break up the fast break, but Watson went behind his back with a crafty dribble that sent Cole stumbling towards the first row while Watson calmly finished with his right hand.
“I saw him cut me off, and I just tried to change directions real quick and lay it up,” Watson said.
On the next possession, Scola scored off a quick dish from Lance Stephenson, extending the Pacers’ lead to 78-72 and forcing a Miami timeout. A couple possessions later, Paul George missed a long 3-pointer, but Scola hustled past a defender to secure the rebound along the baseline and tossed the ball to George in the right corner for an open three that pushed the lead to nine. Miami would never get within one possession.
Those weren’t the only plays the duo made. With the Pacers trailing by 13 at the end of the first quarter, Watson intercepted Dwyane Wade’s pass and finished a contested layup just before the buzzer. At the start of the ensuing quarter, Watson and Scola combined for six points in an 8-4 run that kept the game close.
Pacers head coach Frank Vogel’s faith in Watson and Scola seems to grow by the game. Tuesday night, he played both heavy minutes in crunch time. Watson entered the game for George Hill with 2:06 remaining in the third quarter. Scola opened the fourth quarter in place of David West. Neither player checked out until there was just 3:24 remaining.
“Huge,” George said of the duo’s contributions. “They’ve bailed us out plenty of times throughout this season.”
The narrative entering (and probably exiting) Tuesday night’s showdown between the top two teams in the East focused on Paul George and LeBron, Roy Hibbert and Chris Bosh, Indiana’s First Five against Miami’s Big Three.
But the difference Tuesday night may well have been further down the roster. The Pacers’ two primary offseason acquisitions – Watson and Scola – combined for 13 points and made a string of key plays to help lift Indiana past the two-time defending champions. Miami’s two big additions – Greg Oden and Michael Beasley – were inactive.
Yes, it’s December. There are 60 games left in the regular season and things may be different come next Wednesday’s rematch in Miami or a playoff series in late May. Beasley, out with a hamstring injury, is averaging 11.4 points per game and Oden – if he can get healthy – could provide Miami with size to combat Hibbert in a playoff series. But for tonight, the Pacers showed that they are an improved squad.
“Getting Scola, Scola’s huge – his IQ of the game, his ability to pass and also to score,” Heat star guard Dwyane Wade said after the game. “Obviously, bringing C.J. Watson on – they did a good job. As I said before the game, they did a good job of making their team better this year.”
Roy Hibbert agrees.
Indiana’s bench struggled to make an impact in last year’s postseason, failing to combine for even 10 points in three of the seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Last year’s backup point guard, D.J. Augustin, was waived by the Raptors on Monday. Last year’s starting power forward, Tyler Hansbrough, is averaging a career-worst 6.4 points per game in Toronto. The difference in production with Watson and Scola is clear.
Hibbert made it clear that he meant no disrespect to the players on last year’s roster, but told Pacers.com’s Mark Montieth after the game that this year’s second unit is a clear upgrade, noting the importance of having “an aggressive point guard” and “a four who can hit jump shots consistently.”
Watson feels he was brought to Indiana for these types of games.
“I think so, and for down the stretch in the playoffs,” he said postgame. “We just got to try to make plays. The bench is getting more comfortable each and every game. Coach is putting his trust in us and we just got to keep doing that and making plays at the end of games.”
Scola, however, doesn’t want any added weight placed on his contributions against Miami: “I think I’m here for every game. This game’s a little bit more important, but we need all the games to have a good number, if we’re going to get the No. 1 seed.”
The two players may have slightly different perspectives, but both are (quietly) proving to be important upgrades. Come May, they just might be the ones to make the play that pushes the Pacers into the promised land.