This one had potential collapse written all over it. In fact, there was a distant precedent for one.
The Pacers, though, appear to be developing the maturity to hurdle the obstacles of complacency that arise routinely through an NBA season. Their victory over Phoenix at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday was expected and in fact should have been easy, although not necessarily as easy as 131-97. But you know how these things can go. What's expected doesn't always happen over the course of 82 games, especially in a situation such as the one the Pacers were in.
They were coming off a 3-2 road trip, and winning records on road trips are universally viewed as positives. They had defeated the Suns in Phoenix on Nov. 27. They were coming off a three-day break in the schedule that included a day off. They were beginning a five-game homestand and doing so against the team with the worst record (11-33) in the Western Conference.
Plenty of excuses for a letdown can be found in that paragraph, but the Pacers resisted the urge. Maybe they didn't even feel the urge. Sure, they let a 19-point lead after the first quarter dwindle to seven with four minutes left in the second period, but theirs was never an at-risk victory. That was their greatest challenge in this game, being by far the superior team with the cushion of some added luxuries thrown in. And they met it, just as they did on Friday in New York by easily defeating the team with the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference.
Coach Nate McMillan could buy a mansion if he received a dollar for every time he was compelled to remind reporters his team would just take it one game at a time. But the message appears to be sinking into their psyche, if the previous two games are a fair indication.
"Their approaches to these last two games, coming out and playing the game, respecting the opponents - I thought they did that right from the start," McMillan said.
"For three quarters (excluding the second) the guys came out with the energy, the focus to play this game the right way. Respect the opponent and just play the game."
A simple strategy but one often ignored, even by more established teams than what the Pacers now have.
Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images
21 years ago, during Larry Bird's first season as coach in 1997-98, the Pacers won a December game in Phoenix in overtime when Reggie Miller hit a baseline jumper at the final buzzer. Miller ran off the court with his index finger held to his lips as if telling the fans to be quiet, and then waved goodbye to the Phoenix players. Later in the locker room he reveled in the moment, saying "it was almost like a rat (peeing) on cotton, it was so quiet."
A month later, Phoenix came to Market Square Arena and delivered karma. With Miller's bravado still fresh in their memory, they defeated the Pacers by a point. "We don't forget things like that," Suns guard Rex Chapman said afterward.
Tuesday's game had eerie similarities to that one. The Pacers had the memory of their earlier victory in Phoenix. Nobody did anything to intentionally insult the Suns that night, but their rookie center Deandre Ayton suffered some embarrassment when Darren Collison executed a crossover dribble on a drive to the basket that sent Ayton to the floor. That highlight was widely circulated on social media, and no doubt resulted in plenty of harsh verbal jabs from Ayton's teammates.
The Pacers didn't suffer retribution in this game, however, because of their mature approach and Myles Turner's return. Turner had missed the previous four games because of a shoulder injury. He also had to wear the mask designed to protect his broken nose for a second time. Despite his unfamiliarity with the protective gear and the rust that had accumulated over his 11-day break from game action, Turner pretty much picked up where he left off in December, when he played the best basketball of his career.
He finished with 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting, grabbed six rebounds, picked off two steals, blocked two shots and held Ayton to 14 points and eight rebounds, below his season average in both categories.
"It's awkward," Turner said of the mask. "The guys who made the mask for me did a really good job of it. But it's like when you first wear glasses; you get used to it over time."
There's no disguising the Pacers' formula for winning, though. It's all about balance and teamwork. Seven players scored in double figures, with the unlikely absentee from the list being their leading scorer, Victor Oladipo, who finished with eight points. Oladipo hit just 2-of-11 field goal attempts and missed all seven of his shots in the second half. He forced a few of them, and complicated matters with four turnovers.
Although he appeared disengaged at times during the game, he was all smiles afterward in the locker room.
"I don't need to score; that's the beauty of our team," he said.
He'll likely need to score more on Thursday, when the Pacers play Philadelphia in Game 2 of their nine-day homestand. But not too much more. The Pacers lost to the Sixers at the Fieldhouse on Nov. 7, when Oladipo scored 36 points but put up 30 shots. He appears sold on the more balanced effort now, but it needs to be tested against better competition than the Suns and Knicks provide.
The Pacers (29-14) had what was rated as the NBA's easiest schedule the first half of the season. It will get more difficult the rest of this month, with games against the Sixers (29-16), Dallas (20-23), Charlotte (20-23), and Toronto (33-12) remaining on the homestand and another against Golden State on Jan. 28.
Their record against the teams that currently have a winning record is 7-11. To grab one of the top four spots in the East and earn homecourt advantage for the first round of the playoffs, they'll have to do better.
"The next step is to win against the really good teams," Oladipo said. "That's the next step, beating them consistently."
That starts with Philadelphia on Thursday. The Pacers weren't backing down from it in the postgame locker room. Bojan Bogdanovic, who scored 20 points against the Suns, called it a "playoff game." Thad Young, typically efficient and versatile with 12 points, seven rebounds and four assists, settled for "big game."
Call it whatever, but next time the challenge won't be fighting off complacency.
Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and you could be featured in his next mailbag.
Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.