The five-game road trip the Indiana Pacers fought through in late January was … rather intriguing. Sure, Frank Vogel’s group survived — collecting a 3-2 record — but their energy was thoroughly tested. That was when Paul George entered his mid-season shooting slump and when Phoenix demonstrated to the world that they’re no Western Conference slouch.
Jan. 25 was easily one of the more disappointing nights of Indiana’s marvelous season, as the Denver Nuggets used 25 points from Wilson Chandler and a double-double from Ty Lawson to down the Pacers, 109-96.
In Monday’s meeting in the heart of basketball country, Indiana was able to split the season series, taking a commanding 39-point victory, 119-80.
Without their star floor general, Ty Lawson, in the lineup on Monday evening, Denver wouldn’t find it easy to execute on either end of the floor. Lawson was ruled out after suffering a broken rib in Saturday’s loss to the Detroit Pistons and will miss Denver’s final game before the All-Star break. Filling his place in the starting lineup was Quincy Miller, who has played just 11.3 minutes per game for the Nuggets this season.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t the guard matchups that gave Denver their biggest problems to begin the game.
David West, who arguably plays the most important role for Indiana, came up with his best first quarter of the season in front of his former assistant coach.
Shaw likely wasn’t amazed, considering he spent two years alongside West, and several coaching against him during his tenure with the Los Angeles Lakers. West was in New Orleans during that time, combining with Chris Paul to give Los Angeles trouble in the Western Conference.
“We played with the right attitude,” West stated. “We came out aggressively. We got off to a good start. Tonight, we made a concentrated effort to get to the goal. No letdowns.”
West became uncontainable to start off the night, scoring 17 points in the opening quarter, on 8-of-10 shooting. The 11-year veteran isn’t always the most stat-filled player, but he’s been around long enough to know how to exploit defensive weaknesses. Roy Hibbert also established himself early, scoring back-to-back buckets in the first three minutes of action. The Pacers shot a staggering 66.7 percent in the first, mainly due to their 18 points in the paint. Interior scoring opens up the rest of the game … that’s basketball 101.
If you remember, Hibbert only got four quality looks in Sunday’s surprising loss to Orlando. Numerous games throughout this season have shown … Hibbert’s lack of involvement on offense normally puts the Pacers in jeopardy of losing, unless he’s performing at the Defensive Player of the Year level each and every night. Hibbert broke through the four-game stretch of scoring in single digits, as he scored 14 points on Monday, pulled down 12 rebounds, and blocked four shots.
The second quarter unfolded in the same manner, with Indiana outscoring Denver by double digits and increasing their lead. It’s very rare that you see the league’s 20th-ranked offense explode for 60-plus point halves, but if the Pacers have proven anything to us this season, it’s that they can do a little bit of everything on the hardwood. Similar to the first quarter, Indiana held Denver to just 20 points in the period, forcing Nuggets’ Wilson Chandler into some difficult attempts, and completely taking Shaw’s frontline (Kenneth Faried and J.J. Hickson) out of the game. Playing against Indiana, studies show that you’re not going to succeed in the paint. If you think you can, you better be DeMarcus Cousins. Without Faried and Hickson causing concern with their mid-range shooting, they weren’t able to produce what they needed to.
Despite a quick 10-4 run by the Nuggets after a Randy Foye 3-pointer and pair of assists, Indiana didn’t let their lead vanish. Six Pacers scored at least four points in the second, including six from the versatile Luis Scola, as they thrived on a run of their own (22-10) to head into halftime leading 61-40.
Blowouts are rarely fun or entertaining … unless it’s against a fierce, historical rival. I’m sure Indiana fans get a bit more thrill out of clobbering Spike Lee’s Knicks over and over, even if it’s becoming such a common occurrence.
In the third, the definition of ugly basketball found it’s way to Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Denver put on display just how much Lawson means to their game plan and success, as the Nuggets executed on just 6-of-23 field goal attempts, which included 1-of-8 from 3-point territory. Nothing came easy for Denver, with Hibbert stopping a wild transition attempt from Faried by denying the “Manimal” at the rim, and coming up with another block on one of Chandler’s desperate drives to the bucket.
It wasn’t all hard to watch, however, as Lance Stephenson drew quite a buzz from the home crowd early in the third. With 9:24 remaining, Indiana’s “energy guy” unleashed a series of moves on Denver’s Jordan Hamilton that could accurately sum up Stephenson’s play style. After giving Hamilton the famous Michael Jordan ball fake, the All-Star snub used his arsenal of crossovers to blow by Hamilton for the layup. This weekend’s All-Star game will surely have it’s share of flash, but none quite like Stephenson’s.
West didn’t disappear, but it would be hard for any player to match that level of first quarter intensity. He finished with 25 points on an impressive 11-of-13 shooting. In Indiana’s last four games, West has been sizzling, nailing 39 of his last 60 attempts. Haven’t been accustomed to that since Chris Paul was setting him up in Byron Scott‘s offensive schemes.
Indiana had their struggles when it came to taking care of the ball (which isn’t anything new) in the third. Even after committing seven turnovers in the period, the Pacers carried a 85-56 lead into the fourth.
It would become garbage time from there.
Vogel emptied his bench, as every fan in the arena figured he would. Chants reached a comical level on Monday, with fans chanting the names of numerous individuals to enter the game. One, Andrew Bynum, won’t even be active until several weeks after the All-Star break. Then, the blowout brought some new ideas to the crowd, mainly influenced by Indianapolis Stars’ Candace Buckner.
Okay, now the fan sections are just chanting anybody and everybody’s name. I full expect to hear SCOTT AG-NESS in a minute. #HiScott
— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) February 11, 2014
Denver couldn’t muster anything significant in the final 12 minutes, offensively or defensively. Indiana’s lead stretched to 39 in a game where they only trailed once, midway through the first quarter. Chris Copeland, Solomon Hill, and Donald Sloan all played more than seven minutes for the Pacers to close the game, as Ian Mahimni and Rasual Butler were featured for the entire fourth.
Indiana became the NBA’s second team to reach the 40-win mark this season, considering Oklahoma City rode Kevin Durant‘s incredible 2014 kickoff to their 40th win last Wednesday, Feb. 5. The Pacers still sit four games ahead of the Miami Heat for first place in the Eastern Conference, as that’s the only goal that truly matters for them in the regular season.
Playing in front of their home crowd, it’s becoming easy for the Pacers to enter games with loads of confidence, owning the league’s best home record of 25-2.
However, they can’t head into games against undermanned teams thinking it’s going to be a cakewalk. Knowing that a top tier point guard in Lawson would be unavailable for Denver, Vogel implied that the preparation must be the same:
“We learned a couple of lessons in a couple of games this season,” Vogel said after the game. “Sacramento (on Jan. 24) had a couple of key guys out and the rest of their players elevated their play and gave us a really tough game. And last night (in Orlando) we learned we’ve got to play all 48 minutes.”
Is The Slump Ending?
All-Star starter Paul George entered Sunday’s game in Orlando on one of the worst shooting slumps imaginable. Since Indiana’s last meeting with Denver, George had shot 38-of-126 (ouch!) from the field and 8-of-41 from beyond the arc.
In the loss to Orlando, George fought through the adversity, even though he fell short on winning the game late with an ill-advised clutch attempt. George shot 10-of-19 in The Amway Center, including 5-of-8 from long distance.
Monday’s loss was something that Denver could consider an embarrassment, considering the Pacers didn’t need George to lead the way. George shot 4-of-10 in the win over the Nuggets, scoring just 12 points, grabbing five rebounds, and dishing four assists.
There’s no better medicine for a hard-working superstar than a much-needed weekend break. I’m not sure if he’ll be receiving that, due to George’s participation in Saturday’s Slam Dunk Contest and Sunday’s All-Star game, but the mental rest will sure be there. It may just help to take the mind away from preparation, and enter a relaxing stage where he can go into a mid-season reset.
These superstars have been giving their all, on a nightly basis, since October’s training camps. It’s unrealistic for fans to expect sheer greatness every time a budding superstar steps onto the floor. Guys are going to hit their slumps, especially when fatigue settles in.
Shaw, who still has strong feelings towards Indianapolis and the Pacers’ organization, believes that George has already paved his own path in the NBA’s foreseeable future.
“Paul George is an All-Star starter, and I said this morning that he’s the best two-way player in the game – and that includes LeBron (James) and everyone else you include,” Shaw stated after the loss.
It’s a rather monumental compliment — whether he coached George or not — to put the four-year Pacer in the category of the two-time defending champion.
If there’s one aspect of George’s game that isn’t going to hit a brick wall, it’s his defensive pressure on the wing, and even in the interior. His length and body type are going to be factors that allow Indiana to pursue championship rings for the remainder of his contract. As well as things are going as a team, it’s likely going to be longer than that.
The Pacers will remain in Indianapolis as they prepare to take on Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks (31-21) on Wedesday, Feb. 12. With 51 games in the books, it’s rather eye-opening that this will be the first season meeting between the two.
The Mavericks are currently on a mission to secure their names in the Western Conference Playoffs, winning their last five games, and six of their last seven. During their five-game winning streak, Dallas has averaged 109.2 points per contest, and have consistently been a top five offense this season, in terms of offensive rating (110.8), which measures points scored per 100 possessions.
On the flip side, Indiana has a distinctive advantage for Wednesday’s matchup. Ranking fourth in the league in rebounds per game, the Pacers will need to use a collective team effort — and perhaps a triple-double burst from Stephenson — in order to exploit Dallas’ weakness in that area. The Mavericks rank 28th in the league when it comes to crashing the glass, so Vogel can expect to limit second chance points as much as possible.
Good luck, Pacers.
Shane Young is an NBA credentialed writer for HoopsHabit.com and SB Nation’s IndyCornrows. For all Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, or general NBA coverage, follow @YoungNBA and @HoopsHabit on Twitter.