Rodney Stuckey was wrapped from shoulders to knees in brown towels when he returned to his locker, still shivering from his 15-minute dip in the cold tub.
This isn't quite what you expected to see after yet another sizzling shooting performance, one that is helping propel the Pacers into the thick of the playoff race. Their 104-98 victory over Golden State on Sunday moved them within a game of the seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings, and a half-game back of the eighth and final playoff spot. It should also be mentioned they're just a game up on 12th place. Bottom line, they're one of six teams fighting for two spots, all within two games of one another.
Stuckey, though, is suddenly one of the primary reasons the Pacers have earned optimism. They've won six of their last seven games, they have legitimate hope Paul George will return before the season ends, and the lineup's pieces are falling into place since George Hill returned to the starting lineup. Stuckey is one of those pieces, and his place is on the bench.
To start games, anyway. All around the world, basketball players view the starting lineup as a place of honor. Starters get introduced, they get to make the first impression, and most of them get to finish games as well. They're supposed to be the best a team has to offer. Now Stuckey comes along and tells coach Frank Vogel he doesn't want to start, and both he and the Pacers flourish.
He scored 30 points in less than 29 minutes against the Warriors, hitting 11-of-17 shots, despite the fact he had sprained his left ankle in Philadelphia on Friday and was questionable for the game. That makes three consecutive appearances off the bench in which Stuckey has averaged 25.3 points, averaging more than a point a minute. He's hit 28-of-43 field goal attempts (65 percent), including 6-of-10 three-pointers in those three games and, having scored 30 in Philly as well, he's the first Pacers player – ever – to score 30 points off the bench in consecutive games. And, oh yeah … the Pacers won all three games.
“He's found a rhythm,” said fellow guard C.J. Miles, a man who knows all about shooting rhythms.
Stuckey's performance on Sunday was all the more impressive because of his sprained ankle. It looked serious at first on Friday, as he was being helped off the floor, but he felt better once he got in the locker room. He didn't participate in Saturday's practice, and felt reasonably good on Sunday.
He had the training staff tape the ankle a little tighter and was ready to go. He sprained the right ankle in the first quarter, but recovered quickly from that one, too.
“I think I need to change my shoes; I think they're too loose,” he said.
“I wasn't trying to think about it. You're never 100 percent playing this game. I just had to suck it up.”
“He's as tough as they come,” Vogel said.
And apparently as humble.
Stuckey had started 37 of the 40 games he played prior to the current three-game winning streak, but wasn't feeling in sync with the ever-changing group of starters. He had asked Vogel for the “demotion” earlier than it came, but Vogel wanted to give Solomon Hill a couple of games off the bench to “recharge his batteries” and see how Stuckey and Miles worked together.
Stuckey finally got his wish at New Orleans in the final game before the All-Star break and responded with 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting. He's a better fit with the other reserves – Luis Scola, Ian Mahinmi, C.J. Watson and Damjan Rudez – because he can be more aggressive offensively. With the starters, he's just one of five guys who can score and has to be careful not to step on veteran toes. With the reserves, he's needed to score. And as it turns out, he plays starting minutes off the bench, and gets up more shots than ever. He also got to finish Sunday's game. Not a bad gig at all.
“I can do a lot more things,” he said, the chill of the cold tub wearing off. “I thought it was a better fit for me.”
Miles knows the feeling. In fact, he's a bit envious of Stuckey's role. Both of them have come off the bench and started frequently throughout their careers, and are comfortable with either role. But Miles admitted Sunday that if forced to make a decision, he'd prefer coming off the bench, too.
“It makes everything easier, because you play with so much more confidence,” he said. “You don't feel that pressure on your shoulders, you think less, and it opens up everything. You just play basketball.”
Miles, remember, stumbled out of the gate as a starter, partially because of migraine headaches and other ailments. He hit 16-of-63 shots in the first five games, but gradually found his shooting rhythm off the bench after sitting out all but a few minutes of the next eight games. Now he's got rhythm as a starter, too. He scored 13 points on Sunday and hit the game's biggest shot, a three-pointer at the end of a superb display of ball movement to give the Pacers a four-point lead with 26.5 seconds left. He scored 17 at Philadelphia on Friday.
The Pacers had the benefit of playing Golden State without its MVP candidate Steph Curry, who had sprained an ankle on Friday. Klay Thompson, however, covered for his absence nicely with 39 points. Curry and Thompson average 45.6 points between them. Sunday, Thompson and Curry's replacement, Shaun Livingston, combined for 47, so how great was the loss?
It qualified as one of those “good wins,” which are starting to become a habit for the Pacers. They have momentum, and are looking more and more like a legitimate team – one that include a potent bench. That means Miles is stuck with starting, at least for as long as Paul George remains out of the lineup, while Stuckey will have the privilege of coming off the bench.
“Whatever makes us click better,” Miles said. “Whatever takes those kinks out of the machine. Whatever makes us roll smoothly.”
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