From the outset of the game (rather, after Paul George's first basket), it was obvious the Indiana Pacers' starters just didn't have enough under them on the offensive end as shots wore down the paint on the front rims tonight. Their poor shooting left them to play from behind nearly all night, but despite having 53 points through three quarters, Indiana was able to weather play by the Magic with a tremendous defensive effort.
With it being the eve of the Super Bowl in Indianapolis, it seems fair to compare the Pacers to a football team that got everything they needed from their defense to pull out a win, but the offense just couldn't come up with enough to pull it out. Paul George wasn't able to put up an encore performance, despite a few big plays, but did lead the Pacers defense tonight in a big way.
There were so many swings in this game that gave Orlando all the advantage they needed to grab a big road win, and almost all of them came at the free throw line. The Magic had five points on +1 opportunities and Dwight Howard was an uncharacteristic 7-10 from the line. Speeches on the importance of free throws are often made when a team misses them at crucial points, but tonight was a case of Orlando taking full advantages of their free throw opportunities, helping prove on the other end of the spectrum that making free throws will in fact win you games since Howard shooting closer to his season average or Orlando not getting so many +1 opportunities could have easily turned the tides.
But despite the loss, it was really hard to be upset with the team as the game wound down in the fourth quarter. It was easy to tell they didn't have it, but they were able to make just enough plays to keep the Magic from running away with the game. Tyler Hansbrough had a season high 17 points to lead a much improved bench effort, hitting that mid-range jumper with ease. Even George, who foolishly fouled J.J. Reddick on a four point play immediately set out to make up for his transgressions with six straight Pacers points to cut the game to one.
Yet the Magic were there to respond to each push the Pacers made. Even though the Pacers were able to get the shots to keep them alive, they weren't able to get the shots to make the small deficit into a lead. In fact, each possession down the stretch and every Pacer miscue offensively seemed to be the dagger in the game, but someone would step up and keep the glimmer of hope alive.
The big play of the game in the winding seconds came with the Pacers down three with 12 seconds to go. With hope alive following a couple of big defensive stops on Howard, they looked to inbound the ball to Roy Hibbert, who was wide open in the post. Howard was able to get a tip on the ball, as Hibbert wasn't able to to pull in the pass as it sailed out of bounds and back to Orlando. Indiana kept the game alive, but Hibbert's dejection on the bench showed it may have been the possession that put the nail in the coffin.
It was unfortunate the Pacers had to take on their second home loss (both to Orlando) of the season on the eve of the Super Bowl, but their defensive effort was stellar and kept them in the game, forcing 24 turnovers on the Magic. Unfortunately, the offensive legs just weren't there and Indiana has to feel they let one slip away, giving them all the more reason to get back into the win column Tuesday.
After the jump, more on the play of the Pacers:
- Tyler Hansbrough led the bench with 17 points as mentioned, doing so in classic Tyler Hansbrough fashion. But the real heroes of the game went to the bench, who played far better than last night's abysmal showing. Lou Amundson of all people had a handful of frustrating plays on Dwight Howard as Dahntay Jones and Lance Stephenson pitched in defensively helping salvage some poor runs by the starters to keep Indiana alive in the game.
- Defense certainly was the word of the game if you're looking for positives for Indiana, and Paul George was absolutely the catalyst to the defensive effort in tonight's game. He was ballhawking like a safety, so much that it's a surprise he ended up being credited for only three steals. George's play really helped in forcing a number of turnovers that will win you games four times out of five, and he certainly had a pair of offensive stretches where he was doing some big things.
- Danny Granger led all Pacers in scoring with 19 despite being a dreadful 4-16 from the field. The advantage? Danny was once again able to get himself to the free throw line for 9 perfect attempts, also grabbing four offensive boards on his way to seven for the game. Chippy play against the Pacers has become a staple for opposing teams, and Quentin Richardson found something to be upset about when he was ejected after getting in Granger's grill following a near-steal from Danny. Something about the Pacers seems to bring out the most disgruntled in their opponents, even when the outbursts are downright head scratching.
- Darren Collison ended up with zero assists, a notable number not necessarily from his perspective, but from a team perspective. Despite the team's inability to hit shots, ball movement was down across the board. It's not fair to put the low assist number on Collison, who did his share to keep the game competitive, but the Pacers are a far better team when they play the aggressor on the defensive end and maintain solid offensive movement. They came to the game defensively, but Orlando's defense disrupted enough of the Pacers offensive rhythm that they weren't able to settle into a nice flow and get those assists to come naturally.
It was a tough loss, but a somewhat expected one. It's not fair to blame it on tired legs given Orlando was also on their second night with a hotel layover in Cincinnati, but the Pacers were very flat and in the end, it caught up to them when everything just felt a little short. Indiana will get two days to rest up for their second straight home game (first back-to-back home games of the season as well) against the surprising Utah Jazz. Given the taste this game had to leave in the blue and gold's mouth, they should want nothing more than to get back on the court and avenge their loss. This is a great opportunity for the Pacers to continue to grow in mental toughness and continue to respond to losses in a positive manner.