Pacers' 2015 Playoff Push Worth Remembering
Despite coming up short of their goal, the Pacers rattled off six straight wins and saw their star return to the floor
On April 1 of 2015, the Pacers' season looked as if it may have just been dealt a final blow. Paul George, who had spent the entire season recovering from his leg injury suffered with Team USA still hadn't returned to the floor. The team dropped back-to-back games, including a 100-87 loss to the Boston Celtics that sent them to a lowly 32-43 with seven games remaining in the season.
"It's very frustrating," lamented George Hill in the locker room following the loss. "Everything is on the line and we are just blowing it and giving it away. We got to figure out a way to get it done...We got to stay the course. Hopefully the basketball gods help us out and some other teams lose that we need to lose and we get a couple more wins, but it's very frustrating."
George was due to be back any day, but with his status still uncertain, the Pacers flew back from Boston to Indiana for a meeting with the Charlotte Hornets. Against Charlotte, the Pacers rediscovered the fight that Hill had lamented they lacked two nights earlier, beating the Hornets 93-74 in a dominating performance.
"We wanted to come out with a sense of urgency and get a good start in the first quarter, get ourselves a rhythm offensively and defensively and try to give ourselves a chance to really be able to make a big push," C.J. Miles said following the win.
In the time before their next game, the team got its best news of the season: Paul George was ready to return for an Easter Sunday matchup with the Miami Heat. In a packed Bankers Life Fieldhouse filled with fans holding "Welcome Back PG" signs, George checked into the game for the first time since his injury at the 5:34 mark in the first quarter.
It didn't take long from George to rediscover his rhythm either, hitting his first shot less than two minutes after checking in, sending The Fieldhouse into a thundering applause.
With the stakes of the game high, forward Luis Scola had one of his best performances of the season, scoring 23 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in just 19 minutes on the floor. Scola's performance, combined with the emotional lift of George's return, helped propel the Pacers to their second straight victory.
"There is no bad time to get a Paul George back," said Frank Vogel with a smile after the game. "With what we're up against certainly, we have an uphill battle of trying to catch the teams ahead of us, it's good to have him back."
The team quickly embarked on a two-game road swing, facing New York and Detroit. Against the Knicks — who entered the game 15-62 — the Pacers won easily, besting New York 102-86.
Two days later, however, they had a more formidable foe in the Detroit Pistons. In the third quarter, the Pistons outscored Indiana 32-28, tying the game at 79. But in a stretch of the season in which players were stepping up to propel the team forward, Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles each erupted for 24 points, combining to make 8-of-13 3-pointers as the Pacers squeaked out a 107-103 road win.
"We're in survival mode," said David West after the game, "We're just fighting for our lives. We know we need help from somebody else but we're just taking care of our business."
The schedule, however, did the Pacers no favors moving forward. Riding what was now a four-game winning streak and still without control of their playoff destiny, the Pacers had three games remaining, all coming against high-caliber opponents. Oklahoma City and Washington at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and a season-closing second night of a back-to-back in Memphis.
With no Kevin Durant — who was out for the remainder of the season with a foot injury — the Pacers did their best to contain Westbrook, but the electric guard was simply unstoppable. Westbrook exploded for 54 points, but luckily for Indiana, no one else on OKC was able to find a rhythm. Despite Westbrook's offensive exhibition, the Pacers still came out on top, grabbing a 116-104 win to extend their winning streak to five.
"Every play is a big play," Miles said of the playoff race. "Everybody is stepping up and making big plays on both sides. When everything is big, you have to lock in and just find ways to win games."
As Indiana's playoff chase began to garner attention, with five straight wins banked and fighting for control of its destiny, the Pacers found themselves playing in a nationally televised game on TNT against the already playoff-bound Wizards.
With two minutes remaining, the Pacers trailed by four. That lead wouldn't last long, however, as John Wall directed Washington's offense down the stretch, tying the game and sending it to overtime.
In OT, Indiana was trailing by two with 1:22 remaining when a Washington rebound slipped out of the grasp of Drew Gooden and tumbled towards the Wizards bench. In full pursuit, Roy Hibbert chased down the loose ball, flinging it off the foot of a Wizards player before tumbling two rows deep on Washington's bench. With another offensive possession, George Hill shoveled a pass to Hibbert who nailed an 18-footer with the shot clock at 3.5, tying the game again.
In double overtime, the Pacers finally got a break when Rodney Stuckey fired a pass to George Hill, who buried a 3-pointer, giving Indiana a 97-92 lead. The Pacers held on, winning 99-95, regaining control of their playoff destiny in the process.
For the Pacers, the math was simple for the final game: Win in Memphis and make the playoffs.
With their Washington game being the final home game of the season, the Pacers had Fan Appreciation night, signing autographs and throwing headbands and shoes into the crowd, delaying their departure for Memphis. By the time the team plane left, they were already behind schedule and didn't get in until the early morning.
Needing a bit of magic, the Pacers sought and were granted permission from the league to wear their Flo-Jo Hardwood Classic uniforms — which they were a perfect 7-0 in that year — for the season's finale against the Grizzlies.
For a moment, it seemed as if the Pacers might get a break, with Memphis' playoff seeding locked in, it was possible that the Grizzlies might rest their key players.
But when the starting lineups were announced, it was clear Memphis saw its 82nd game as more of a tuneup than a rest stop, bursting out to an early lead against the Pacers.
To make matters worse, in the fourth quarter, with the Pacers already trailing, George felt a pop in his leg and was carried off of the floor by his teammates, casting a pall over what had been an exciting game.
"When Paul got hurt, it was just such a devastating feeling that, not as much about the playoffs slipping away, but seeing Paul go down as hard as he worked to get back," recalled Pacers assistant coach Dan Burke of the moment.
Without George in the game, and several players dealing with lingering injuries and fatigue from having played the night before, the Pacers' ticket to the playoffs slipped through their fingers, falling 95-83.
"I'm proud of this group's resiliency and their ability to overcome a ton of adversity dating all the way back to the summer," Vogel said after the loss. "We gave ourselves a chance to get in but I certainly am very disappointed."
George's injury proved to be no more than a calf strain, alleviating fears that it was something more serious.
After the sting of missing the playoffs subsided, it became clear that this Pacers team had outperformed the expectations of most, with Miles, Stuckey, West, Hibbert, and Hill all raising their level of play during the season's final weeks to give the home fans a thrilling and frenetic finish to the season.
"I thought the fans had our back the whole year, just sticking with us throughout the season," Stuckey said recently, recalling the 2014-15 season. "You know, it's a lot of ups and downs throughout the season, but when we had to step up and do what we had to do I thought we did a great job of doing that towards the end of the year, and most importantly we stuck together and we had each others' back throughout the whole year, and that last part of the season was great."