Among the best things to come from the Indiana Pacers' recent success isn't so much that they're simply grabbing wins, but each game has told a story. It's one of a team evolving and growing, taking key steps forward. No longer is this the same team that had been able to measure their progress with moral victories; the Pacers are landing hits and leaving games with a W by their side. They're playing like the team that sits at third in their conference, one that seems like they're coming together at just the right time, and one that jumped all over the Oklahoma City Thunder en route to a key win, as they improve to 34-21 on the season, guaranteeing their first winning season since 2004-05.
The Pacers really had a purpose tonight, and it showed in a big way. While they've really stepped up their game offensively in recent weeks, they'd done so while letting their offense slip a bit. The Pacers had to claw their way to their early season success using their defense and found a ton of success by doing so. Tonight, they showed just how dangerous they could be when they zoned in on defense while letting their highly capable offense flourish. It's what led them to score 32 points in the first quarter, led by Roy Hibbert and David West, but it was their defense that held a dangerous Thunder squad to just 20.
One of the real dangers the Pacers faced was their struggles to find the basket to open the second quarter. After pushing the game to 15, Indiana went scoreless for four minutes, but in that same period, the Thunder could only muster up 7 points, a notable nod to the Indiana defense that despite any bad stretch, they were going to show up defensively and get through their rough patches. Oklahoma City was able to cut the lead to 6 points late in the second, but the Pacers, again led by Hibbert, ran off a 13-4 run to close the half with a bang.
Indiana stormed out in the second half with a continued confidence to outscore OKC 16-7 in the opening six minutes, blowing their halftime lead all the way up to 24 as the Pacers led the Thunder 72-48. Meanwhile, despite the team struggles, Kevin Durant had quietly been getting himself into a groove, and despite the lead, it was easy to see that with as much time as was left, a team as good as the Thunder was more than capable of making a comeback.
So when the Pacers offense suddenly plummeted and they were unable to see the ball go through the basket for nearly 6 minutes, it was the Thunder, who led by their big three of Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden (the three scoring all of their third quarter points), began to claw their way back in the game. The remarkable thing was that even despite Indiana's inability to work in anything offensively, their defense continued to hold strong. The Thunder inched their way back, but when it was all said and done, they went into the fourth quarter down 14 points, just one point better than their halftime deficit.
The all-important fourth quarter, led by Durant, was as much of a nail biter as you'll get in a double digit game, but the confidence of the Pacers, their growth, their exceptional resolve in games this week, were on full display. Oklahoma City (particularly Durant) threw everything they had at the Pacers. Free throw after free throw after free throw cut the lead, but it should be no surprise the hero of the fourth quarter was the guy who had been leading the Pacers all week: Danny Granger.
Granger had 13 fourth quarter points, and the Pacers needed every single one of those 13 to stave off OKC's furious fourth quarter rally, which they cut as close as three. With last Sunday's game in Houston looming over him, it was Darren Collison who helped ice the game away with a clutch jumper with under a minute and a pair of free throws to keep the game at arm's length.
The Pacers won the game 103-98, an impressive win by any name against the #1 seed in the Western Conference, one of the league's championship favorites. It was a night like this that have to make Pacers fans feel good. Sure they nearly blew a 24-point lead, but the beauty is that they didn't. It's impossible to keep a team like Oklahoma City down all night, especially when Kevin Durant slyly and with ridiculous ease racks up 44 points, when Russell Westbrook nearly gets a triple double, and with Serge Ibaka holding a block party throughout the night.
The difference between Indiana's comeback against New York vs. Oklahoma City's comeback against Indiana is that the Pacers didn't allow the game to switch into OKC's favor. In the first half of the quarter, despite the furious play of the Thunder, who appeared to have all of the momentum, they had only shaved two points off of the lead, and needed everything from their best players to even be there, to be in a position that they may win with some breaks going their way.
It's a testament to Indiana and how far they've come that in a league where leads are temporary, they can make the plays to win. Danny Granger was absolutely lights out when the game mattered most. Everything Durant and the Thunder had, Danny was there to respond. Granger racked up a team high 26 points with six boards, four on the offensive glass for good measure. Indiana did a great job tonight limiting Thunder opportunities on the glass. They gave up 11 offensive boards, but the effort was much better than it has been in recent games in regards to that.
The Pacers, on the other hand, dumped 18 of their own on OKC, led by Roy Hibbert's 7 as he totaled 21 points and 12 boards for a huge double double. The big fella had his hook shot going tonight, and he was laying himself out for loose balls. The Pacers had a boatload of energy to open the game where the Thunder were a bit lackadaisical, and it created numerous opportunities for the blue and gold to walk away with a win.
With help in the front court, David West was lights out to open the game as he finished with 14 points of his own. Paul George continues to beg for calls to go his way, but despite having a horrid 3-13 shooting night, he finished with a career high 16 rebounds, totaling three steals in the process. Darren Collison received a heavy dose of redemption late in the game. Guarded by Derek Fisher with under a minute, DC calmly wound down the clock and drilled the game's true dagger, a smooth jumper that found nothing but the bottom of the net.
There's so much good to say about this game. Indiana's confidence, resolve, the team's ability to find a hero in any of the five players on the floor. It appears to be coming together in a big way, and if it does, the Pacers will have a prime opportunity to make noise in the playoffs this season. The Pacers win keeps them a game and a half up on the Atlanta Hawks, who clawed out a victory at home against Detroit this evening, putting the Orlando Magic squarely in the sixth spot.
Indiana will have to match their great energy tonight with another showing against the rejuvenated Boston Celtics, who are a much different team than the one Indiana faced earlier this season. While a win wouldn't put the Celtics away for good, it would win the season series and get Indiana a 4 1/2 game lead, making it very difficult for Boston to catch the Pacers in the standings. So a key matchup against a potential playoff opponent? The Pacers will have no room to slack in tomorrow night's affair.