The Indiana Pacers are fortunate for a lot of things this 2013-14 NBA season. It’s always nice, of course, to keep the injury count at a minimum, which is the reason they’ve been the most dangerous Eastern Conference team.
What they should also be fortunate for, however, is that the Phoenix Suns won’t be a playoff threat to their chase for a title.
On Thursday, Jeff Hornacek‘s Suns, who still find themselves moving upward in Western Conference playoff contention, swept the season series with the Pacers by pulling off a 102-94 victory in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The loss marked just the second time Indiana has tasted defeat on their home floor, with the first loss coming Dec. 16 to the Detroit Pistons.
Phoenix probably didn’t expect to cruise to another 24-point blowout that they handed the Pacers last week in U.S. Airways Center, but it sure looked as if we were heading in that same direction.
The Suns came out of the gate blazing, getting anything they wanted against the defense everyone has raved about this season. Posting 36 points in the first quarter, Phoenix carried over the energy they illustrated Wednesday night in Milwaukee. The shocking win in Indiana made it a perfect 4-0 in the four game Eastern Conference road stand Phoenix embarked on.
There were numerous reasons why Indiana couldn’t get the job done on Thursday in front of their home crowd.
Typically with this Pacers group, they rarely slack on an abundance of the game’s aspects in losses. Mostly, you’ve been able to pinpoint a primary reason for each of their nine losses heading into Thursday’s game. However, with the all-around appalling performance, it started with … hustle.
Indiana was no stranger to the fact that Phoenix was a dynamic team in the open court. In last week’s meeting, the Suns scorched Frank Vogel’s unit in the fast break category, outscoring the Pacers 28-5 in transition opportunities.
It was no different on Thursday, as the Suns exploded with surprisingly fresh legs and won the fast break margin 21-0. After forcing turnovers (Indiana committed 15), the Suns would be looking to press the issue. Credit Goran Dragic and the coaching job by Hornacek, as they both understood that, in order to win handily, they couldn’t play a slow tempo, half court battle. Phoenix did exactly what they’ve stressed all season; run, run, run. And realizing these Suns are leading the NBA in fast break points per game (18.8 per contest), Indiana had little to no effort in getting back on most of the instances to stop it.
Paul George, who will be an All-Star starter for the first time in his four year career, continues to dig deeper into his recent shooting slump. Scoring just 12 points on 5-of-17 field goals and 0-of-6 from 3-point range, George wasn’t able to have his team come out victorious despite his low production, as the Pacers did against the Lakers on Tuesday.
Since the astonishing, clutch overtime performance in Sacramento last Friday, George has hit a slump that he’s ready to see pass by. In the Pacers’ last three games (at Los Angeles, at Denver, vs. Phoenix), George has shot just 26.7 percent from the field, connecting on 15-of-56 field goals. Also during that three game span, he has been frigid from beyond the arc, shooting just 1-of-16 from 3-point range. The Pacers dropped two of those three games, with the only win coming against the worst Western Conference defense that the Lakers put on the hardwood nightly. Ouch …
The most paramount problem Indiana had to deal with all night was the All-Star snub, Goran Dragic. Maybe the Western Conference is just compiled of too many standout, popular superstars, but this underrated point guard deserves to be playing on Feb. 16th in New Orleans. In Thursday’s win, Dragic scored 21 points in the first half alone, nearly a third of the Suns’ 66 total points when halftime rolled around. His most impressive attribute of the night was his fearlessness in taking the ball to rack, especially on the NBA’s best rim protector, Roy Hibbert.
A play that demonstrated this perfectly came in the closing moments of the second quarter, as Dragic penetrated to the rim, and forced Hibbert to switch over and pick him up defensively. Knowing he is much quicker than the 7’2″ center and having the smarts to remember the clock was winding down, Dragic pulled Hibbert away from the rim and created enough space to bury a corner mid-range jumper to give Phoenix a 17 point advantage heading into halftime.
Dragic finished the game with a stellar 28 points, seven assists, and just two turnovers. It marked the Slovenian’s second consecutive game hitting at least 28 points, as he exploded for 30 the night before in Milwaukee. In the month of January, Dragic recorded 22.3 points, 6.6 assists, and 4.3 rebounds per game, while shooting a staggering 52.2 percent from the field and 46 percent from beyond the arc. When this Suns team lost a prolific offensive force in Eric Bledsoe, someone had to pick up his slack. Check. Let me know when another point guard scores that efficiently while having to put up large numbers each night to keep his team alive in the race for a playoff spot.
Just left the locker room, 40 minutes after the game ended. Four starters are still in uniform and quiet. Not taking the loss well.
— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) January 31, 2014
Indiana closed the gap considerably in the third quarter, coming out of the locker room on a 8-2 run and maintaining consistency through the quarter behind Roy Hibbert. The Pacers executed the third period they needed, outscoring Phoenix 25-11 and eating away at the deficit to cut it to 77-74 heading into the final quarter.
Hibbert was marvelous in the third alone, as his eight consecutive points in the midst of a 18-3 run allowed the Pacers to make it a ball game. It’s always been when they’re at their strongest; when Hibbert is involved offensively against teams that can’t match up with him. He finished with 26 points on 9-of-17 shooting, six rebounds, and two blocks. The most important of all his numbers, however, was the fact that he made 11 trips to the free throw line and connected on eight. When he’s being aggressive and drawing fouls on the opposing big men, this team normally succeeds.
Until they stray away from him in the fourth quarter.
That’s exactly what Indiana’s offense did on Thursday, as Hibbert was a non-factor offensively for most of the fourth quarter. Even by then, George couldn’t catch any fire if you handed him a lighter, and the team needed points to keep up with the run and gun Suns. It became George Hill who stepped up and nailed a couple huge buckets to keep the Pacers alive, but it wasn’t enough to propel them over the hump. The closest Indiana came to taking back the lead was after Hill buried two free throws with 4:20 left, as he cut it to 91-90. Phoenix then put the pedal to the metal.
“We came out, got ourselves back in it in the second half with defense, but couldn’t get up over the hump,” Hibbert said after the loss. “They outplayed us.”
One of the lost story lines in this upsetting loss for Indiana was the marquee performance from Lance Stephenson, who learned that he was snubbed from the All-Star reserves list just prior to lacing up for Thursday’s game. It’s quite comical that Joe Johnson was selected for another All-Star appearance, considering his career reputation probably had the most to do with it.
This season, Stephenson has been more deserving, as he’s been playing better all-around basketball, on a consistent basis, and for a championship caliber team. Quite frankly, the East’s leading team needs to have three selections, just as Miami always gets their three. Stephenson’s season averages include 14.2 points, 5.4 assists, and 7.2 rebounds per game, with a PER of 15.95. Don’t forget, Indiana is 35-10.
Stephenson to Vogel after coach informed him that he didn’t make the All-Star team: “I want to be an All-Star, but I rather win it all.”
— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) January 31, 2014
Joe Johnson’s numbers revolve just around his scoring, as he has averaged 15.7 points, 2.8 assists, and 3.4 rebounds per game with a PER of 14.98. Did we mention … Indiana is 35-10? Stephenson’s impact has been glaringly more significant, in the opinion of many.
Stephenson played with something to prove after being snubbed, as he recorded his fourth triple double of the season. Understanding that an All-Star game isn’t as important as the NBA Finals games he’ll be starting in June, he caught a spark to open the second quarter on Thursday, scoring 12 points in the quarter. Finishing with 14 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists, Stephenson was another Pacer that should have been more involved and engaged in the fourth quarter.
As a team, it was disheartening for the Pacers to be so horrid from the perimeter.
Indiana got just one of their 15 attempts from long range to fall, the only make coming from Stephenson. C.J. Watson missed all three of his looks from deep, and the 6.7 percent 3-point accuracy became the lowest for the Pacers all season. Sure, you’re going to have bad nights and they may have still been lethargic from last week’s road trip, but there’s no excuses to be made when the Suns have been on the road for four straight games and were participating in a back-to-back.
Danny Granger contributed absolutely nothing in terms of production off the bench, although he didn’t look to be much of an option in the offense. Playing 21 minutes and taking just three shot attempts, Indiana’s sixth man finished scoreless, with zero assists to go along with it. It is just end of January, and teams are still practicing to get better in any way they can. However, it’s becoming time Granger steps up and shows shades of the attacker we know he used to be.
Thursday’s loss was only Granger’s second scoreless outing since returning, so he gets a pass. But this bench is not going to live up to what the fans make it out to be unless we see him wanting that aggressive role back. It’s time for the 26th best bench to start helping out the starting lineup that has so much of a responsibility on both ends of the floor. Beginning to wonder if their lock down defense has just fatigued the starters to a certain point where offensive consistency is hard to maintain night in and night out.
Ex-Pacers, Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee, didn’t have the type of games they hoped for as they returned to Bankers Life Fieldhouse as visitors, but still came out on top. Green scored 16 points and nailed two 3-pointers, while Plumlee struggled with his opportunities, scoring just four points and grabbing six rebounds in 19 minutes of action.
“This year they’re (Pacers) not the underdogs anymore,” Suns’ Channing Frye stated after the game. “Teams come out and give it their best shot. For them to expect us to come in and lay down, for any team to lay down, it’s not going to happen.”
The Suns have now defeated the Pacers twice, with an average of 16-point victories.
It’s true what they say: basketball is a game of matchups. Perhaps one of the worst matchups for Indiana is now this feisty Suns squad, who are now playing with something I’d never predicted before the year kicked off: confidence. They know it’s not impossible to knock off the NBA’s best defensive team. Phoenix exploits a minor weakness in Indiana, which is their ability to keep up with fast paced, high octane offenses. When the Pacers want to slow the game down and play at their pace (which is ranked 18th in number of possessions per 48 minutes), the Suns speed them up, and force turnovers.
Unfortunately for Suns’ fans, this is the most glory they will have when it comes to out-battling the Pacers. It would take a miracle for the Suns to scrape out a playoff series with a Western Conference powerhouse they are destined to meet in the first round … while it seems as if Indiana could coast to the Conference Finals in a East that everyone wants to embarrass.
Indiana has Friday to try to get their energy level ramped up, because the Brooklyn Nets visit Indianapolis on Saturday night. The Pacers have taken the first three meetings between the two this season, as it marks the fourth and final time Jason Kidd tries his luck. For Phoenix, they return to host the Charlotte Bobcats and look to push their streak to five straight wins.