They just find a way
Stars gotta shine, right? How else can a team beat an elite opponent whose own stars are burning?
The Pacers are the exception to that seemingly obvious rule, and that exception is (1) the foundation of their success, (2) the explanation for their league-best record and (3) the reason they pulled out an unlikely 118-113 overtime win over Portland at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Friday.
All-Stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert were a detriment throughout most of the 53-minute affair, although both managed to make crucial plays late. George hit just 5-of-23 shots, continuing a shooting recession in which he’s hit just 38-of-126 shots over the past seven games. Hibbert hit 2-of-8 shots for nine points, his third straight game short of double figure scoring.
The Pacers shouldn’t have been able to beat a team like Portland (35-14 entering the game) with those two playing like that, but then the Pacers defy norms. They are a chameleon team, able to adapt to any circumstance and opponent, and find a way to avoid being beaten.
Friday, it was George Hill and David West making up for the absence of starlight. Hill scored a career-high 37 points, hitting 12-of-19 shots, with nine rebounds, eight assists, one turnover and the game’s biggest shot. West scored 30, hitting 13-of-16 shots, with 10 rebounds, and added the most meaningful intangibles and the downright luckiest play. They also made up for the absence of Lance Stephenson. who sat out with a bruised lower back, and the lack of help from his replacement, Danny Granger, who hit just 3-of-10 shots.
How could they win, with so many key players not contributing much, and Portland’s stars, Damon Lillard (38 points) and LaMarcus Aldridge (22) on their way to big games. Sometime they figured a way. And sometimes fate did it for them.
They were down four points in regulation when Hibbert rebounded Hill’s missed shot. He didn’t even bother to go up for a layup, passing instead out to Danny Granger, who air-balled a three-pointer. But Hill was there to catch it and lay it in.
They were trailing by one point coming out of a timeout with 35.9 seconds left in regulation, and then Granger stepped out of bounds after catching a pass in the right corner. Nicolas Batum hit two foul shots to give Portland a three-point lead with 22.7 seconds left, and George followed by missing a three-pointer. But West got his hand on the rebound and Hibbert was able to control it long enough to shovel it back to Hill, who hit a three-pointer from the left wing to tie the game with eight seconds left.
They got another break in overtime, when Granger missed a layup and Aldridge rebounded – but threw the ball right to West underneath the basket for an uncontested dunk that provided a four-point lead. George, who had hit a three-pointer with 1:30 left in regulation, dribbled off a pick and hit a 20-footer with 17 seconds left to push the lead to five and put the game out of reach.
The Pacers can be confounding. They are soft at times, both physically and mentally. They don’t play well in the second half of back-to-backs, and they have a habit of starting slowly. Friday’s victory was their 15th of the season in which they trailed at halftime. Their mojo is to hang around and hang around until, finally, somebody steps up. It doesn’t matter if the two All-Stars (George and Hibbert) are struggling or the almost All-Star (Stephenson) is sitting out or the veteran replacement starter (Granger) isn’t helping much. Someone steps up.
They’re 39-10, best in the NBA, and 3 ½ games better than defending champion Miami in the Eastern Conference. The remaining schedule is mostly favorable and in a few weeks they’ll add former All-Star center Andrew Bynum, who joined the team for practice on Friday. The easy instant analysis is to say they can’t maintain their pace, can’t reach their goal of capturing the No. 1 seed in the East, if they don’t do something about all the lapses that have stained their play over the past few weeks.
But then who’s to say they can’t? With so many weapons, the odds always seem in their favor.