The Pacers desperately needed a night like this, where even a miscue could produce a reward.
Late in a surprisingly close and combative game, the Pacers were clinging to a one-point lead over the Pistons. Roy Hibbert rebounded his own miss, turned and heaved the ball out to Paul George, who was a few feet inside the midcourt stripe.
Though Hibbert’s original attempt clearly hit the rim, the shot-clock did not immediately re-set so when George caught the ball, he glanced up and saw less than three seconds showing. He launched a desperation three from 35 feet out that settled through the bottom of the net, giving the Pacers a two-possession lead in a game they would go on to win 101-94.
“I told them, ‘Just don’t re-set it yet, wait, I think Paul’s got something here’,” Vogel said with a smile. “And they didn’t re-set it and we got something good.”
George said he saw the shot-clock re-set as he was releasing the shot.
“There wasn’t nothing I could do about it at that point,” he said, “except follow-through, I guess.”
And so it is for the Pacers, who with six games left in the regular season may have just enough time to shed their funky March and build something positive heading into the playoffs.
The victory over Detroit was hardly authoritative, but that mattered little to those involved.
“We know it’s not just going to snap back into place when you’re out of rhythm like we’ve been the last couple of weeks but definitely a positive step … I don’t think you go from where we were struggling back to being dominant overnight,” Vogel said. “But the (last) three games in a row, in my mind, we played the right way, trying to trust the pass and trying to guard and I think each of those three games we’ve gotten closer to returning to form.”
George played his best game in weeks with 27 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and two steals. Most importantly, he generally played within the flow of the offense. Rather than one guy trying to put the team on his back and forcing the issue, they pulled together collectively.
They shot 49 percent, had 24 assists and committed just 10 turnovers. Granted, it was against one of the worst defensive teams in the league, a unit that recently yielded 123 points in Philadelphia’s streak-busting victory but with the state the Pacers have been in recently, losing five of their previous six and putting up pre-shot-clock-era final scores in the process, it was a keeper.
“A couple nights ago, we would’ve lost this game,” George said. “This is the most we’ve felt together. Everybody was positive, everybody was on the same page, if somebody messed a play up we were able to constructively criticize what’s going on and guys took it well. How we started the year off is how it felt tonight.”
Though there has been no shortage of team meetings lately, the most recent appeared to have provided some form of resolution. Though the Pacers were off Tuesday, the starters gathered in the locker room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to hash things out.
There had been bickering on the court and off, thinly veiled finger-pointing and talk of splintering and ultimately too many distractions.
“I just thought guys needed to air some things out,” said David West, who like George emerged from a shooting slump with a 7-for-10, 15-point night, “Everybody’s just got to get back on the same page and we’re working toward that, to make sure all of our goals are the same and we continue over the last six or seven games, we can’t worry about seeding or anything like that. We’ve got to focus on just playing better basketball and being a better basketball club.”
The players also decided to try something revolutionary: leaving the officials alone. There were no fowl foul faces from West, no upraised arms of complaint from George.
“At some point, we’ve got to be able to move on,” George said. “I’ve been the worst probably on this team of doing it. It’s something I’ve kind of learned, just to move on. There’s nothing I can ever do to persuade a call. It’s never happened in the league, I don’t think, so it’s just moving on and continuing to just play basketball.”
Vogel then sent his own message after the Wednesday morning shootaround, telling the players to keep their complaints in-house. If you have a problem with a teammate, talk to the teammate, not to the media.
The player most often at the center of discussion, Lance Stephenson, also was critical to the victory. His burst of energy late in the second quarter – a driving dunk, a through-the-legs pass that Ian Mahinmi actually caught and laid in – sparked a 10-point surge that put the Pacers ahead for good.
At 53-23, the Pacers are still percentage-points behind Miami (52-22) atop the East, but you get the impression all that focus on the top seed might in and of itself become more burden than motivator. For the moment, the bar has been lowered, ever so slightly.
The immediate goal is not to catch the Heat, but to recapture the Pacers.
All they can do now is follow through.