Lost in the glare of the Indianapolis Colts’ almost premature return to contention is an Indiana Pacers team that has unequivocally become a contender. Moreover, a case can be made that this team has rebuilt itself into the NBA’s version of the Seattle Seahawks: A game-wrecking defensive team capable of shutting down even the best offensive opponents.
The most recent victim: Orlando Magic. Monday’s 98-79 thrashing was the predictable result of a defense that held Orlando to just 28 percent shooting in the second half. It’s no surprise the Pacers have not only the best record in the league but the No. 1 defense.
Danny Granger hit his stride, shooting 3-of-5 from 3-point line, and finishing with a season-high 16 points. It was his best effort since he put up 20 points versus Miami in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“We definitely have a gear to push that lead when we want to,” said Granger. “It’s just a matter of fact of not relying on that when we get into these games. We have to execute offensively, our defense is always going to be there, it’s just our offense that sometimes comes and goes.”
But perhaps the biggest difference-maker on offense was Lance Stephenson, who after not being selected to the All-Star Game, finished with 15 points, 12 rebounds and five assists in 37 minutes. After building a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter, first-unit stars Paul George, David West, and George Hill sat out the remainder of the game.
C.J. Watson and Luis Scola added 12 and 10 points respectively for the Pacers.
Orlando managed to cut Indiana’s lead from 16 to 9 by the end of the half, and then to just 2 in the third quarter and came close to tying the game.
But the Pacers responded with 6 consecutive points, and then late in the third quarter went on an 18-1 run to put the score at 86-64 with little under 8 minutes left in the game.
Though it was a strong performance by the Pacers, it was tough-going for a while. Indiana managed to overcome poor shooting by playing staunch defense early in the second half without giving up the lead.
Then came a Lance Stephenson highlight-reel jumper that drew a foul on Victor Oladipo and put the Pacers up 63-58 with the free throw. Orlando would never have a chance to tie it again. Quite the contrary, the Pacers went on a 9-1 run in the third quarter to make it 75-63.
”It goes back to passing,” Granger said. ”You know when once you move the ball, you get a lot more open shots. We’ve been trying to do it by ourselves these last 10 or 12 games and our offense has been struggling. So we move the ball, we get layups, backdoor cuts, open 3s. That makes everybody look good.”
Coach Frank Vogel had been preaching the virtues of sound, fundamental basketball leading up to the game, and that is exactly what the Pacers were able to able to do. Things like making the extra pass, taking care of the ball, and play defense.
This year’s Pacers have the look of a Championship-caliber team. It’s been a while since the Pacers were this close. From all appearances, the rebuilding project that began over 7 years ago is now complete.