Tight-Knit Pacers Continue to Lift Each Other Up

Cory Joseph was afraid at first. Who could blame him, with one set of teammates rushing at him from the bench and four more sprinting toward him from the other end of the court as he lay helplessly on the court?

It will stand as a signature moment of the Pacers' season, a moment that captures the connection this team has made with one another and the fanbase. Joseph had made a hustling play to steal a crosscourt backcourt pass, convert a layup and draw a foul that knocked him to the floor and into the padding on the stanchion with 5:14 left in the Pacers' victory over Atlanta on Friday when...Well, let's let him tell it.

"I'm laying down," he said. "Joe (Young) came off the bench and he was right beside me, and I looked toward the bench and they were so excited and coming near me. Then I looked down the court and saw five guys literally sprinting with smiles on their faces."

He meant to say four, meaning the other players besides him who were in the game, but you get the point. Two of those four, Lance Stephenson and Domantas Sabonis, were racing one another. Stephenson started it, shouting, "I've got him, I've got him!" and began running. Sabonis took up the challenge ran as well. Oladipo and Thaddeus Young ran, too, all arriving about the same time.

Back to Joseph: "All I was thinking when I was laying on the ground was, 'These guys are going to run me over! Somebody's going to trip over somebody's foot because they're so close together, and somebody's going to land on me. This is not a good thing for me right now.'

"When nobody ran me over and I got up, I was laughing because it was so hilarious."

Hilarious, not to mention inspiring, in the safety of retrospect. The Pacers' 116-93 victory over Atlanta in the post-break resumption of the season for both teams lifted their record to 34-25, tied with Washington for fourth in the Eastern Conference standings. They're just 1 1/2 games back of third, but, equally relevant, just 1/2 game ahead of Milwaukee in sixth and 1 1/2 games up on surging Philadelphia in seventh.

The Pacers have a long way to go to make something of this season, and their remaining schedule — 14 road games, nine home games — is challenging. But the best argument for a strong finish can be found amid that pile of humanity at the end of the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where Joseph was being helped to his feet by a committee of smiling teammates.

"That just shows you right there what kind of men we are in the locker room, and how special the locker room is," Victor Oladipo said.

"We didn't even know each other were doing that. We just saw Cory on the ground. When somebody's on the ground, you've got to help him up. This is a family. We're in unison. We're in this together. Cory made a great play, an and-one — we're going to rush over there and help him up. It's like no man down. You leave no man to die, and that's the mentality we've got."

It showed more than unity, though.

"That also shows fresh legs," Sabonis said, laughing.

The Pacers were refreshed from their week-long All-Star break. All, that is, except for Oladipo, who participated in the slam dunk competition on Saturday and the All-Star Game on Sunday, not to mention a host of social events throughout the weekend in Los Angeles.

His fatigue was evident in his shooting, which consisted of just five field goals in 16 attempts, but his mindset was evident in the rest of his stat line. He contributed seven rebounds, nine assists, four steals, and two blocked shots in his 28 minutes.

Had coach Nate McMillan left him in for the final 4 1/2 minutes, he might have collected his first career triple-double. But he didn't mind being pulled, under the circumstances.

"As long as we're winning I'm straight, bro," he said. "I had a long weekend."

Besides, there are things to get done in a basketball game besides scoring.

"You have to find other ways to impact the game," he said. "(I was) just getting people involved, drawing two defenders and making the right play. Obviously on the other end I can impact the game in a positive way as well. I think that's why I'm a great player, I guess you can say."

Here's something else you can say: The Pacers got another lift from the return of Glenn Robinson III, who made his season debut after recovering from surgery following ligament damage in his left ankle, suffered in a September training camp practice. Many of the fans in the sellout crowd gave him a standing ovation when he entered the game in the first quarter, and his teammates were just as happy to have him back.

"That (provided) extra adrenaline and emotion for us," Sabonis said.

Robinson had practiced with the team for a couple of weeks before the All-Star break, played in two games for the Pacers' affiliate G League team in Fort Wayne and trained in Phoenix over the All-Star break. But his emotions were running high when he entered the game with 3:51 left in the first quarter, as was evident on his first shot attempt, a 19-footer from the left wing that failed to find the rim.

"We were talking in the locker room (before the game) that my first shot probably would be an air ball, so it's funny it happened like that," he said. "I just laughed it off. I knocked down my next one (a 20-footer). Hopefully I continue to get in that rhythm."

McMillan told reporters before the game Robinson would only play five to 10 minutes. He told Robinson, however, he could play longer if things were going well. Robinson played 18 1/2 minutes. He didn't do much offensively, scoring four points while hitting just 2-of-6 shots, but he got through it in good shape.

"I'm happy just to be a part of this and stepping back on the floor with my brothers," he said.

The Pacers will need him the rest of the way. They'll also need starting point guard Darren Collison, who will miss at least two more games while recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. Joseph, who finished with 15 points, four rebounds, four assists, and four steals on Friday, has filled in nicely, but the Pacers likely will need all hands on deck to make a strong run toward, and into, the postseason.

Nobody knows better than Joseph the primary factor that can bring more uplifting moments.

"We preach the three Ts," he said. "Togetherness, toughness and, uh..."

He laughed, trying to recall the elusive T.

"Hey, Myles! Togetherness, toughness … what's the other one?" he asked Turner.

"Trust," Turner said.

"My bad," Joseph said, smiling.

No problem. For the Pacers, for now, it's all good.

Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at askmontieth@gmail.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.

Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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.