The problem was, even though they were winning, they weren’t beating anybody. The Lakers? Everybody beats them now. The Mavs? Please.
Times are changing.
This victory over Miami Tuesday was exactly what everyone had been looking for from this team: validation that it really did take itself seriously as a contender, even without Danny Granger and half of Roy Hibbert (more on that in a minute).
ALL OF A SUDDEN, GEORGE IS THE MAN
Let’s begin with Paul George, aka Danny Who?
His performance against the Heat was one of the most remarkable all-around performances I have witnessed in 25 years covering the Pacers. Offensively, he scored 29 points against one of the best defenders in the league and frankly made it look easy. He also did it when it mattered most, scoring 17 in the 33-9 run in the second half that turned the game.
Defensively, he made LeBron James’ life miserable, forcing seven turnovers. James had to work extremely hard to reach 22 points, needing 20 shots.
And there’s this: with James as his primary defensive responsibility, George did not pick up a foul until 44 minutes elapsed – and then it was on help defense inside against Chris Bosh.
“He’s doing everything,” said James. “He’s rebounding, scoring … He was a good player last year but we weren’t able to see it because he wasn’t a featured player.”
AND THEN THERE’S THE DEFENSE
When you’re shutting down the Cavs and the Hornets, it’s a little hard to get excited about the defensive stats.
When you do it to the best offensive team in the league, with two of the most prolific scorers, it becomes apparent this defense is not only real, but really good.
Miami entered averaging 103.0 points and shooting .490 from the field, both tops in the league, and scored 77 on .412 shooting.
Consider these defensive stats:
>> First in field goal percentage (.414);
>> Second in points allowed (89.5);
>> Third in rebound percentage (.521).
Pretty nice, right?
Not only do the Pacers lead the NBA against in points in the paint (35.1), they also are No. 1 against the 3-point shot (.315).
That, my friends, is pretty amazing.
QUALITY WINS BRING CREDIBILITY
In their first 18 games, the Pacers did not have a single victory against teams currently holding playoff position, going 0-6 in those matchups.
Since Dec. 4, however, they have six such wins (Chicago, Portland, Philadelphia, Memphis, Milwaukee and Miami), including two in a row.
Tuesday night was by far the most significant.
Don’t think for a minute this was one of those times when you catch an opponent napping. Miami was highly motivated, particularly after reading quotes from Pacers players and coaches about how important they considered this game. After shootaround Tuesday morning, LeBron James said, “They’ve been talking a lot … we’ll be ready.”
Not so much.
BENCH DOESN’T STINK ANYMORE
The Pacers don’t need the second unit to be great. They need it not to stink.
More and more, they’re getting what they need.
D.J. Augustin has emerged from his first-month funk and now looks like a high-quality backup point guard. Tyler Hansbrough has regained confidence in his jumper, adding an important element to his otherwise aggressive game. You know the Mayhem guy in the Allstate commercials? That’s Hansbrough.
Gerald Green is finding his way and Ian Mahinmi has been solid throughout.
Early in the season, the bench minutes were a Vortex of Doom. Lately, they’ve been pretty fun to watch.
HALF OF HIBBERT MAY BE ENOUGH
Let’s all get in a circle, join hands and make this pledge: “I will not get excited the next time Roy Hibbert scores at least 15 points, declare it a breakthrough game and assume The Big Fella is back.”
When Hibbert had his 20-point night against the Bucks, there was frankly too much hullabaloo. It wasn’t a breakthrough, it was a nice night. He was right back to his old self offensively against Miami, shooting 3 of 12. Five of his misses were putbacks. Two of his three buckets were jumpers. He’s still struggling and very likely will continue to do so, offensively, for quite a while.
The thing is, that’s fine. He is making massive contributions on defense and that’s really the heart of this team. It’s also really the heart of his game. If nature intended Hibbert to be a 20-point scorer, it wouldn’t make him look like a crashing helicopter every time he makes a post move.
Let Roy be Roy — block shots, rebound, secure the paint, be the anchor of the best defense in the league. If he wants to play volleyball on the offensive glass every once in awhile, so much the better.