It may have been hyperbolic to call tonight's game a must win, but to understate the value of the Indiana Pacers getting back on track while snapping their five game losing streak against a New Jersey Nets team well under .500 and on a seven game skid themselves would be doing disservice to the level the Pacers have put themselves on through the first 30 games of the season. And with Danny Granger returning after nearly two games out, the Pacers had little reason to fall short despite being on their third night of a back-to-back-to-back.
It sure didn't seem like the message was received when the Pacers got off to another slow start fueled by poor defense and opportunistic New Jersey offense to put Indiana down double digits in the first quarter. They did show some signs of life offensively, namely through David West, who had 10 first quarter points. Unfortunately, most of those were counterattacks to the New Jersey front line, who torched the Pacers throughout the first quarter.
The Nets shot 74% in the first quarter, a number that would've been more impressive had they not been laying in every other shot with little to no contention. The first quarter struggles were put on full display with the Nets took a 29-18 lead with under a minute to go, leaving every Pacer fan at a loss for words. Danny Granger finished off the quarter with a three, and even though they played poorly, it did seem as if there were some very minor signs of improvement, improvement that was far more indicative of the level of play they had shown in recent games rather than the level of play they were showing in the first quarter.
What the Pacers came out with in the second quarter, however, really helped turn the game into Indiana's favor: real life defensive intensity. It'd been a while since that side of the ball had shown up for Indiana, but they used solid defense to jump all over the Nets on a 15-0 run that put Indiana back in the lead, while forcing five turnovers during the stretch. Deron Williams and Kris Humphries led the way for the Nets to keep Indiana from building upon their lead. Given the ugliness of the first quarter, the Pacers should've felt relieved to take a tie game into the half.
The third quarter was an ugly showcase of solid defense; all led by Paul George, who didn't have a lot of numbers besides his four steals, but absolutely focused in on his game defensively, disrupting the New Jersey rhythm offensively. Meanwhile, the refs were swallowing the whistles at every drive at the basket, as both teams went back and forth, struggling to score any points in the third.
But while Paul George went to work defensively, it was the fresh Danny Granger who led the way on the offensive end for the blue and gold, hitting the shots to keep New Jersey from building on leads of their own in the third quarter. The bench played a big part in tonight's game; not only getting some kind of defensive intensity going in the second quarter to turn the game around, but A.J. Price and Jeff Foster gave the bench some big offensive possessions in the fourth quarter as the Pacers were able to use their contributions to build a four point lead that felt like 20.
It seems appropriate that as the game wound down and the Nets had their opportunities, it was the Pacers defense driven by highlight plays from George and Granger that helped ice the game. The biggest liability in the team's five game losing streak finally showed itself to help close out a win. Add in some timely points by Roy Hibbert (and a big offensive rebound) and a game high 32 from Granger, and the Pacers were able to finally snap their season long streak.
While the Pacers were able to get the win, it wasn't a game that likely would've ended in one against a better team. However, it's hard to imagine the funk the Pacers have been in was ever going to disappear in one 48 minute session and suddenly have everything become the "toughness" and "excessive celebration" that had defined the team's early stretch, but tonight's effort was certainly a step in the right direction and it's key now they build upon it.
After the jump, some more on a sigh of relief:
- Paul George, on the same day he was announced to the 2012 Slam Dunk Contest and taken in the third round of the Rising Stars Challenge by Team Chuck, finally got back to his strengths. His struggles in recent games have had a lot to do with him not playing defense at the level that allows his confidence to turn to the offensive end. Tonight, he did that and without having to force his offense, he was able to go perfect from inside the arc, including a showcase jam that summed up his contest appearance well.
- Danny Granger was a bit slow at times to start offensively, but once he got on a roll, the Pacers were able to ride that wave all night. The rest Granger took on with his sprained ankle seemed to do wonders for him as his ability to score and hit timely and crucial baskets was just the kind of push the Pacers needed tonight to put them over the top as they worked through their play on the defensive end.
- The front court of David West and Roy Hibbert came and went, and even though they combined for 29 points on a pretty well rounded offensive game when they were involved as most of the night went to the wings and guards, they were absolutely killed on the defensive end most of the night. Hibbert missed some time early with foul trouble, and Kris Humphries simply had Indiana's number all night, with an almost effortless 24 and 10. For all the good with the defense, there was little answer for Humphries, hopefully not opening the box for other NBA front courts to exploit.
- The second unit really helped clamp down defensively and salvage a rough first quarter and helped with the scoring load in the fourth to build and maintain a modest Indiana lead. While they only had 16 points, their contributions proved the worth of timely points vs. bulk points.
While it's too early to start counting the eggs before they hatch, the Pacers have a golden opportunity to not only rebound from their losing streak, but slowly build their confidence back up with wins as their last four games before the All-Star break are against losing teams with three of them at home. The first opponent is the 3-26 Charlotte Bobcats on Sunday at home. Charlotte is on a 16-game losing streak, which will make the two games Indiana has coming up against the Bobcats potentially dangerous ones. But for now, the Pacers finally got a win, so enjoy it and hope they use their two days off to continue building upon the positives they showed tonight.