The only way for the Pacers to beat the better teams, the teams that are certain to be in the same playoffs they're fighting to be part of, is to get a landslide of contributions big and small. One or two guys aren't going to carry them far, as they've proven all season.
Sunday's victory over Dallas brought several, which was barely enough for a 104-99 escape that tied them with Boston for ninth in the Eastern Conference standings and lifted hopes heading into the most crucial four games of their season, all against teams they're jostling with for a spot among the eight conference playoff teams. Breaking it down to its details would nearly require a microscope, and more words than people would reasonably want to read.
Three players, though, demand attention.
C.J. Miles scored 28 points, and saved the Pacers from being outscored for an 11th consecutive game in the first quarter by hitting all four of his 3-point shots and scoring 14 of their first 22 points in the first 8 minutes, 50 seconds. Damo Rudez took up where he left off by hitting 3-pointers on consecutive possessions in the final minute to give the Pacers a 33-27 lead, but that's another story.
Miles comes and goes, as many shooters do, but he's come on strong lately. Sunday's efficient performance – he hit 9-of-12 shots – came after a 26-point game at Milwaukee on Thursday. He's hit 9-of-14 3-pointers over those two games, but found other ways to contribute, too.
He didn't rely too heavily on 3-point shots, for one. He mixed in a 12-footer in the first quarter, a breakaway layup in the second, a post-up and a dunk off a drive in the third and five foul shots.
“I wanted to keep them off-balance,” he said. “I was able to get some cuts to the basket, and hit one from the free throw line. Coming out hot like that sets you up for the rest of the game.”
Miles hit the game's biggest shot, a 3-pointer with a minute left that opened a five-point lead. He then drew a charging foul from Chandler Parsons with 32.8 seconds left to help the Pacers preserve a three-point lead, and hit two foul shots to end the scoring with 1.7 seconds remaining.
In other words, he saved them from another slow start, and saved them from a poor finish, too.
Solomon Hill, by the way, followed up the charging foul Miles drew from Parsons by effectively defending Parsons' 3-point shot with 3.9 seconds left, keeping him from driving into the lane and keeping a hand in his face. But that would be another story, too.
The Pacers' good start didn't start well, though. Dirk Nowitzki hit a 3-pointer on the game's first possession. Which, strangely enough, might have been a good thing, Miles thought.
“We had a breakdown on the first play, but I think that even made it more of a conscious effort, like we can't do this again,” Miles said.
So why have the Pacers made such a nasty habit of bad starts? Miles shrugged that one off.
“If I knew I'd send a group-text to everybody in the locker room,” he said. “I'd Tweet it, Instagram it, I'd do everything I could to make it known that we had it figured out.”
George Hill didn't have much to do with the good start, contributing just two points and two assists in the first quarter, and giving up six points to his defensive assignment Rajon Rondo, but he dominated the final period with eight consecutive points.
He hit a tie-breaking 3-pointer over Nowitzki with 5:38 left after the 7-footer had switched off onto him after a screen. Hill wanted to drive, but Nowitzki backed off too much to allow that, so Hill hit a step-back three. After Parson's turnover, Hill hit a 30-foot 3-pointer in transition, a bit of a heat-check but one that that opened a six-point lead, the Pacers' largest since early in the second quarter.
Hill followed that with the most memorable individual play of the game, backing Rondo down and executing a spin move for a layup that regained a six-point lead. Hill posted-up defenders frequently in high school and college, but hasn't been asked to do it much since arriving in the NBA. Lately, though, he had been showing that weapon in individual one-on-one drills after practice, and suggested it to the coaches.
“(Coach Frank Vogel) threw me a couple of bones and it kind of worked out so we stuck with it,” Hill said.
Moments such as that eight-point flurry remind Hill to be assertive. And if he needs further reminders, his teammates are happy to do it. It's a fine line for a point guard to look for his shot when Miles and others are scoring, but the Pacers don't want Hill hibernating for long.
“My teammates kept telling me to be aggressive and look for opportunities,” he said.
The only thing Hill didn't do was get to the foul line, but the Pacers got their often enough without him. They attempted 26 foul shots, seven more than Dallas. They hit five more foul shots than Dallas, which not so coincidentally was their margin of victory. Roy Hibbert hit two big ones with 1:30 left to give the Pacers a two-point lead, and raised his season percentage to a team-best .849. But that's another story, too, as is the fact his backup, Ian Mahinmi, is getting increased minutes and is getting the nod for key defensive possessions.
The story of this game should include David West, though. He finished with a routine stat line – 10 points, five rebounds and five assists – but made crucial plays at crucial times, as he tends to do. Entering the game for the first time in the final period with 3:06 left and the game tied at 97, he immediately forced a miss from Nowitzki on the left baseline, not falling for Nowitzki's classic hesitation on his jumper.
West got plenty of experience guarding Nowitzki during his eight seasons in New Orleans. They played in the same division then, and saw each other four times a season.
“I'm pretty comfortable guarding him,” he said.
West also is comfortable directing the offense. He later got the assist on Miles' 3-pointer with a minute left, and had three assists over a two-minute stretch in the third period when the Pacers took Dallas' lead from eight to two. One set up Solomon Hill for a layup, another got Miles a layup and the third got Hibbert a short jumper.
This frankly hasn't been the most pleasant season for West, who's fought injuries and other unexpected maladies from the very start. He's 34, winding down his career, and seeing his hopes for another title shot diminished by Paul George's injury. To top it off, he played Sunday's game with red eyes, the result of some sort of allergic reaction that kept him out of the loss at Milwaukee, but one he doesn't care to discuss.
“Crazy,” he said, forcing a smile. “It's been a bad year.”
His teammates still consider him a sight for sore eyes, though.
“Just all-out leader,” Solomon Hill said. “He's doing everything that needs to be done for our team, vocally and on the floor. Sometimes he looks for his shot and sometimes he looks to create for others. He's our balancer. He finds Roy when he needs to. He finds other guys when he needs to. Defensively, he's always locked in and he's always talking.”
Sunday's game was the last home contest in which the Pacers will wear their “Flo-Jo” uniforms from the '90s (they'll wear them once more on April 8 in New York). If they could, they'd wear them out. They're 5-0 in them, and will take every bit of mojo they can get heading into their games at Brooklyn on Tuesday, at Boston on Wednesday, at home with Charlotte on Friday and at home against Miami next Monday. That stretch likely will make or break their playoff hopes.
George Hill, for one, considers the Pacers' regular uniforms “boring.” He'd prefer they wore the pinstripes at home and the Flo-Jos on the road. But that's another story, too. They'll have to make do with their regular uniforms from here on out, and create their own excitement. Which shouldn't be difficult, given their circumstance.
“It's weird,” Miles said. “I've never been in a situation like this, where so many teams are one game, half-game … two losses can put you in 11th and two wins can put you in sixth. We know the importance.
“It's like the (NCAA) tournament that's going on right now. Win or go home. That's the way we've got to treat it.”
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