In what was undoubtedly their toughest test in the young 2013-14 season, the Indiana Pacers fell short at the Moda Center on Monday evening, dropping an exhilarating matchup to the Portland Trail Blazers 106-102.
The Pacers finally had what they never could seem to get; national media attention. Everyone, including myself, has been high on what Indiana has proven to start the regular season, posting a 16-1 record entering Monday’s showdown. Prior to this game, Indiana’s standout victory came just one day earlier as they downed the Los Angeles Clippers by showing great poise on the road. Monday, however, they just ran into a better, determined duo that wasn’t ready to take a backseat to anyone.
In the first half, the fans got a true glimpse of how close these teams actually are in terms of skill. Neither team could gain a significant lead to close the first or second quarter, as the Pacers’ offense was able to gain an advantage due to Paul George’s 14 first-quarter points. In fact, the largest lead of the first half for Indiana occurred in the first quarter with the Pacers sprinting to a quick 20-11 lead. But when it came to finishing a proficient half of basketball, they allowed Portland to put together a 9-3 run to cut the deficit to just one heading into halftime. One of the top five most important aspects of coaching is making sure your guys finish quarters effectively, and that’s probably the few minutes of the game that Pacers’ Coach Frank Vogel would love to have back.
George’s first-half production came as bit of a surprise, considering his demeanor since the start of the season has been to let the game come to him early on, saving his offensive aggressiveness for the third and fourth quarters during crunch time.
Don’t worry, George still saved his best for last.
As the game began to look completely in Portland’s favor in the fourth quarter after Wesley Matthew’s 3-pointer that gave the Trail Blazers a 86-78 lead, Paul George decided it was time to be as clutch as another No. 24 tends to be in late-game situations. The “rising superstar” scored 17 points in the quarter and propelled Indiana back to within two after nailing 5 3-pointers throughout the fourth. The recognition of George as a “soon-to-be superstar” is blasphemous, because not only is he already at that level, he’s succeeding tremendously at it. George finished the night with a career-high 43 points on 16-of-30 shooting, but could not fulfill his goal of bringing the team back for the win. The Pacers only got as close as 98-96 with 1:37 remaining, but Damian Lillard led Portland through the trenches the rest of the way.
The free throw war was dominated by Portland, as they connected on 29-of-33 attempts from the charity stripe. Indiana? Just 15-of-17. Anytime the opposing team doubles your amount of trips to the line and shoots an efficient 87.8 percent while there, it’s difficult to come away with a win.
After the defeat, George discussed his mindset late in the game as he put up one of the best performance we may see all season:
“I really wanted to get this win,” he said. “I was trying to will us into the game.”
From the winning end, the Trail Blazers just picked the right moments to knock down huge buckets, which was coincidentally the same reason they were able to leave Staples Center on Sunday night with a win over the Los Angeles Lakers. If there is one thing that has been exposed about Portland in their last two games, it’s their resiliency. No matter the outcome of the first half, or a substantial run the opposing team puts together, they have a group of guys that are willing to trade hay-makers when it comes to responding on offense.
Of course, that group begins with the leaders of the bunch, Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Lillard, who is having a year very similar to his 2012-13 rookie campaign, scored 26 points in this game. None were bigger than his 3-pointer within the final two minutes, which did enough to cancel the effect of George’s multiple bombs. Aldridge battled the physical Pacers’ frontcourt all night and was surprisingly efficient doing so, scoring 28 points on 11-of-19 field goals and collecting 10 rebounds. Pacers’ center Roy Hibbert led the game in rebounds by grabbing 14, but couldn’t get key defensive stops against one of his newfound peers (Aldridge). While it was believed that power forward David West would spend majority of the night trying to contain Aldridge, both hard-nosed defenders for the Pacers got their cracks at the task, one that is becoming quite impossible.
Hibbert and Aldridge engaged in a fun post-game Twitter conversation, which should be sending signals to the rest of the league:
Maturity for Indiana
Last December, the Pacers were playing .500 level basketball (10-9 record) when they met Portland for the first time. At that point, the mentality of Indiana was simply them believing they were built for the playoffs, not for a eye-opening regular season. This team always knew their size could give teams trouble, but were still struggling to get into a groove and play consistently night in and night out.
Those days are over, at least for this bunch.
Since the Game 7 loss to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals, Indiana has known exactly how they need to approach this season. Through everyone on the roster training intensively this past summer, they have looked better in every aspect of the game. Offensively, we now see the growing products of Lance Stephenson and Paul George, on top of the post moves Hibbert has added to his arsenal. Defensively, they have leaped the Memphis Grizzlies from last season as the toughest defense to score on, allowing only 87.6 points per game. It has become their first priority to control the paint and allow their defensive stops to create most of their offense, which is always a formula coaches stress the importance of if you desire to make a championship run.
Perhaps the most mature aspect the Pacers have developed in less than a year, is their confidence. Call it “swagger” or whatever you may, but it’s working for them. One cannot simply take a 4-point loss to the Trail Blazers as a game that was needed to “shut them up.” Indiana is well aware that there are going to be nights that superstars (and even role players) catch fire and give them tough challenges.
Head Coach Frank Vogel addressed that matter after Monday’s loss:
“They’re a great offensive team and they made big shots all game long,” Vogel stated. “Hopefully that’s what it’s going to take to beat this team — making impossible shot after impossible shot.”
The key component that separates this Pacers’ group from what the league has been used to seeing the past two years is their own expectations. With an offensive juggernaut making a case for the MVP award, a 7’2″ defense-driven Hibbert, a bench that now gives them more options, and an improved role player that now leads the NBA in triple doubles, the Pacers expect to win every time they step foot on the court.
There’s no telling how thrilled they’ll be when Danny Granger is finally ready to go.