20130429-135523.jpgWatching the Pacers struggle through yet another surprisingly difficult night against a substantially lesser opponent, it’s impossible to shake the thought:

What’s going on here?

Funny thing is, the players are thinking the same thing.

“After a few of these games, before we’ve looked at the film, we’ve said we didn’t play well, didn’t do this, didn’t do that,” said David West after the Pacers survived a missed three by Gordon Hayward at the buzzer to beat Utah 94-91 Sunday night. “But then we watch the tapes and we’re competing hard, we’re playing hard, we’re there, we’re following our assignments. Sometimes guys get hot, teams play well.

“We’re starting to hear it now, how teams are circling us on their schedule and we know we’re going to get everybody’s best shot. … As long as we continue to make enough plays to come out on the right side, we’re OK with that.”

Style points don’t matter during the stretch run. It’s all about the bottom line and in that regard the Pacers are managing nicely, with five consecutive wins and six in seven games since the All-Star break. With 23 games remaining, their magic number for clinching a playoff berth is down to one.

“We’ve got to just be happy that we’re winning ballgames,” said Paul George. “We’re playing great defense the majority of the night, we’re just coming across teams that are getting up for us. That’s the way I see it. They’re hot. They’re making shots, it just feels like everything teams are throwing up against us is going in. But we’re doing a great job of still coming out with wins.”

That theory will be tested down the stretch. Having played seven straight games against sub-.500 teams, the Pacers’ next four are all against opponents currently in playoff position. Of their final 22 games, 14 are on the road.

They just completed a weekend back-to-back sweep of the Celtics and Jazz but have four more sets this month.

HAYWARD ADJUSTING TO LEADING ROLE

Hayward looked like the leading man the Jazz expect him to become against the Pacers with 21 points, three rebounds and three assists.

His fourth season has been his best individually. He could become the second Jazz player ever to average at least 16 points, five assists and five rebounds (the other being Pete Maravich), and has eight games with at least 15 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, fourth-most in the NBA (behind LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love).

But is he the kind of player a team builds around, or the kind a team builds with?

“Some of both,” said coach Ty Corbin. “He’s still a young guy in this league and we asked him to play a different role for us this year as one of the key guys and he’s done very well in it. Some nights he’s able to score a lot of points for us. We need him to score for us most nights.

“He’s able to put the ball in his hands and make plays for other guys, to make the guys he’s playing with better. He can rebound the ball and also he’s big enough, quick enough and to play defense. He’s a key component to what we’re doing and as we grow this group, what exactly his position will be, we’ll see.”

Hayward appears to have emerged from a long shooting slump that included 7-for-41 (.171) from the 3-point line in a 12-game stretch.

“I feel like I’m getting back to where I know I can be,” he said. “I’ve been slumping a little bit the last couple of weeks, but I feel like I’m starting to shoot the ball better these last few games.”

GRANGER COULD START FOR CLIPPERS

Though his debut with the Clippers was delayed by one game because coach Doc Rivers inadvertently left his name off the list of active players that must be submitted to the officials Saturday night, Danny Granger apparently will have plenty of opportunity to make up for that lost time.

Rivers said the ideal would be to work Granger into the starting lineup as quickly as possible, moving Matt Barnes to the bench.

“Whatever role Doc sees fit for me is the role that I would do,” Granger said at his introductory press conference Saturday night. “I’m not one of those players that says, ‘I have to do this, or I have to do that.’ I just want to play, have fun, shoot some 3s, throw some lobs, go celebrate.”

After the 76ers bought out his contract, Granger quickly settled on the Clippers as his destination of choice. He has an offseason home in Los Angeles and is intrigued by Rivers’ up-tempo system.

“If you look at the way they play, they get the ball up fast, they space the court, they shoot a lot of threes, that’s the optimal type of system,” he said. “That’s the type of system that I would probably thrive in.”

As for being traded away from Indiana, Granger said he wasn’t shocked by the move.

“I think it’s been more emotional for my wife,” he said. “She was following the media, and when she heard about the trade, she was like, ‘What happened to staying in Indiana forever?’

“I was like … I realized the trade could happen. I was in the last year of my deal, and that’s a valuable expiring contract.”

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