The term “huge break” could have described what the Indiana Pacers felt when they learned DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay would be inactive for their Friday night meeting with the Sacramento Kings. Both of Mike Malone’s stars experienced frightening injuries on Wednesday vs. Houston, as Gay suffered a strained Achilles, and Cousins sprained his left ankle.
But against a team second to last in the Western Conference, the Pacers found themselves shell-shocked by the performance of Sacramento’s backcourt.
Since his days as an LSU Tiger from 2007-2009 (in which he won 2009 SEC Player of the Year), Marcus Thornton has been known to be one of the streakiest and most prolific 3-point shooters the game has to offer. His NBA career average of 35.9 percent from beyond the arc doesn’t shout in favor of that statement, but when he gets into a zone, the net is getting scorched.
That was the case on Friday, as Thornton ignited to tie his career-high of 42 points against the Pacers, 22 coming in the first quarter alone. Seven of the Kings’ 12 3-pointers came from Thornton’s hot hand, and he let the Pacers know it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk in Sleep Train Arena, even if his team was without a 42.4-point scoring average from Cousins and Gay in the starting lineup.
After trailing 60-50 at the half, Paul George and the Pacers revved up the offensive motor substantially in the third quarter. Eight points from the Eastern Conference’s newest All-Star starter allowed Indiana to crawl back, inch by inch, and enter the fourth down just five.
In the final quarter of regulation, Indiana played terrific, cohesive basketball as a team and continued to match the pressure Sacramento was creating. George and veteran David West worked together on the offensive end to keep the Pacers in the mix.
With 5:26 remaining in regulation, West fed the ball to George on the left wing, allowing Indiana’s MVP to take Derrick Williams one-on-one to the rim. George used his body to create a foul, as he hoisted up an off-balanced jumper just outside the paint to give himself a 3-point play. After the free throw, Indiana trailed 93-89 and the fans could sense the hunger in the Pacers’ hearts. They weren’t about to give away two straight on the road.
Breakout point guard Isaiah Thomas had answers of his own, however, making one of the most monumental shots for Sacramento in the fourth. Tied at 97, Thomas issued a quick crossover on George Hill to free a small amount of space for a 3-pointer from the right wing. Over Hill’s outstretched arm, the triple went down and the Kings found themselves back on top, 100-97, with just 1:28 to play.
The play of the game occurred with just 15.1 seconds remaining, and began with an inbound pass from George to West. Guarded tightly by Derrick Williams, George relied on a strong ball screen by West to give him a great, clean look from well beyond 3-point range to cut the deficit to one.
Splash. It was that very moment that the Kings and their unlucky fans remembered that they were up against the soon-to-be greatest player in Pacers’ history.
Not only did the shot go down, but Williams was called for a foul after knocking George off balance. George calmly went to the line and nailed the tying free throw, forcing overtime in a game they never thought would be this competitive.
In the extra period, the Pacers took control, winning the five minutes by outscoring Sacramento 13-8.
The pivotal moment of overtime came with 3:02 remaining. George Hill picked off a shoddy pass by Aaron Gray, who started in place of the injured Cousins, and led an explosive fastbreak that ended in a Paul George slam. It put Indiana up 110-106, and Frank Vogel’s group never looked back.
George ended the game with 36 points, five rebounds, and four steals, making it is third 30+ point effort of the month. For the season, he has broke the 30-point mark eight times, and is now averaging 23.6 on the year.
The lost man in all of the excitement was center Roy Hibbert, who struggled from the field offensively (just 3-of-11), and posted 10 points and 11 rebounds on the night. He also thwarted the Kings’ post production quite a bit with five blocks.
After the game, Hibbert gave well-deserved praise to teammate Paul George for the incredible 4-point play:
“It took a big heart (by George) to make that shot,” Hibbert stated. “Then we took over the game in overtime.”
Despite not having Cousins, who absolutely wrecked the Pacers in last week’s meeting at Bankers Life Fieldhouse with 31 points and 13 rebounds, the Kings were still able to out-rebound the Pacers (53-49), and that played dividends in making it a close contest.
At the end of the day, the struggling bench wasn’t enough to keep Indiana from grinding away for the victory. Luis Scola and C.J. Watson combined for six points on 3-of-15 shooting, and Danny Granger was only able to add seven for the offense.
Lance Stephenson didn’t get going early on, but rounded out his night nicely with 24 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. Fans are always anxious to see Stephenson add to his triple double count for the season, but that was the last thing on anyone’s mind on Friday. Hill, however, neared the achievement by recording 10 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists.
What more can you say about David West? Here is a guy that somewhat used to care about individual performances and spotlight when he and Chris Paul ran the show in New Orleans. Now, he’s the strongest “glue guy,” if he’s even considered that for these Pacers.
West has a wide array of skills and will always be one of the better mid-range shooters of the NBA’s power forwards. Heck, the “bad man” even drilled a much needed 3-pointer in overtime on Friday. Finishing with 22 points and six rebounds, West’s aggressiveness ranks up there with one of the primary reasons Indiana was able to pull away from the Kings, and why the Pacers have a much more complete set than anyone in the Eastern Conference.
As for George, his performances continue to dazzle the fans that enjoy great all-around basketball. The clutch shot making ability he’s displayed since last year’s playoffs is just becoming that much better. We’ll probably never anyone match Reggie Miller‘s ungodly knack for drilling triples in bunches, but with George … you sure get everything else you want in an MVP.
Indiana stays on their long road trip, as they head to Denver to take on the Nuggets on Saturday. It will be the first of two meetings between the two teams, and the first time Frank Vogel gets to coach against his former assistant, Brian Shaw.