Pacers Beating the Odds, Even Out West
I have this theory that’s known to my friends in the basketball media, and to some players and coaches as well. I call it the Ten-Point Theory.
Simply, it says that you don’t want to take an early double-figure lead, especially when you’re the road team. It’s easier to play from behind, particularly if your fans are cracking the emotional whip. I have no stats to support it, but I swear the team that takes a comfortable early lead loses more often than not, unless there’s a major talent mismatch. Giving at least most of it back is a near certainty. All that media talk about a team needing to get off to a fast start? Nonsense. It’s better to have a fast finish.
The Pacers put the theory to the test Monday against the best team in Los Angeles, the Clippers. Thanks to eight free throws in eight attempts at closing time, they passed it with a 109-106 victory at Staples Center. They jumped to a 10-0 lead, led by as many as 24, then hung on amid a fingers-across-the-chalkboard ending.
And that was just one of the ways they defied the odds.
They also completed a 4-0 sweep of their Western trip, lifted their season’s road record to 19-19, won their fifth consecutive game overall and scored 100 or more points in each of those five games.
Check out the box score when you get a chance, because it’s suitable for framing. Five starters in double figures, some critical contributions from the bench, superlative shooting – especially from the foul line in the final two minutes – and a reasonable number of turnovers (14). To do that on the final stop of a six-day journey that passed through Houston, Dallas and Phoenix, particularly after you’ve won the first three and could be excused for being homesick, says something about a team.
Most obviously, it says this group has come a long way from the one that began the season 10-11 and was once 1-6 in games away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It’s peaking, and doing it with impressive balance and depth.
There were some important individual moments, too.
Roy Hibbert, whose offensive struggles early in the season boggled minds, has been mostly outstanding since the All-Star break. He had 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting and 10 rebounds in 32 minutes against the Clippers and has averaged 16.3 points and 9.8 rebounds over the last 10 games. The pounded fist he delivered to Tyler Hansbrough’s chest as he headed toward the bench after fouling out indicated his interest in keeping the trip perfect.
Lance Stephenson, who entered the road trip averaging 6.5 points in road games, averaged 14 over the four games. He also displayed some homecourt swagger. He was reckless at times, but not afraid.
David West, in his third game back from a back injury, reasserted his alpha-dog dominance with several key plays. The biggest might have been slapping the ball from a Clipper ballhandler to Paul George near midcourt and taking the return pass for a left-handed layup that gave the Pacers a 97-88 with 4:14 left. It blunted the Clipper comeback, and injected a needed dose of confidence into his fading teammates. His left-handed pass from the foul line to George for a three-pointer on the weakside also was crucial, and one always suspects his mere presence in the locker room is worth points as well.
Sweeping a Western road trip is no joke. The Pacers haven’t done it since March of 2004, when they defeated Golden State, the Clippers, Utah and Denver. I covered that trip for the Indianapolis Star and remember it well. This team’s trip had a higher degree of difficulty because of the caliber of the opponents, and that team needed overtime to beat a weak Clippers team.
I remember the players had convinced coach Rick Carlisle to spend a night in Las Vegas after the second game of the trip, in L.A., before flying on to Salt Lake City. He wanted me to keep it out of the newspaper because it might look like they weren’t taking life serious enough. I declined that option, and it turned out not to matter when they won in Utah and Denver to close out the trip.
That team went on to win 61 games, a franchise record, and reached the Eastern Conference finals. This team has 48 wins with seven games remaining. This team is not as good as that one, primarily because that one had more experience, but it could be in a year or two.
The Pacers have all but clinched the Central Division title, and are going to be either the second or third seed in the East. They might wind up preferring to be third, if Boston winds up the first-round opponent for the second seed. Regardless, they are coming together in impressive and timely fashion, and seem fully capable of defying more conventions.