The Indiana Pacers weren't just staring a third straight blowout loss right in the face, they were running towards it. They seemed to want nothing more than to miss every shot they threw at the rim, play poor defense, and give away every ounce of momentum they could momentarily hold in their hands en route to consecutive loss #3. It's part of what made the impressive play of the team in the fourth such a surprise. No one could've seen this coming when Indiana trailed 88-68 with 8:53 remaining in the game. Sure, there was room for one more push, but a 17-0 run in just over four minutes of play? Nope, that wasn't going to happen.
Heading into the fourth quarter down 20, the Pacers had just completed their second four-quarter stretch of playing exceptionally bad basketball, dating back to the fourth quarter meltdown against Oklahoma City. The Pacers entered the final twelve minutes of tonight's game having been outscored 213-157 in the last eight quarters, a mind-numbing 56 points in the negative. Teams have bad stretches and all, but come on, now.
The play of the Pacers through three quarters was exceptionally horrific tonight, and as typically happens with a good team in their third straight game of getting the doors blown off of them, real concerns begin to crop up. The Pacers were under 40% shooting, Paul George was completely out of sync with anything positive despite a couple steals. Indiana had some positives with an early 20-8 lead, but squandered it by the early portions of the second quarter, falling behind at the half, allowing Cleveland over 50% shooting, and getting little reliability from anyone on the floor, unless you were in a Cavaliers jersey.
But down 20 with under nine minutes to play, it got fun. Frank Vogel had long been ejected in an effort to fire up his team and Brian Shaw opted to play Jeff Pendergraph over Roy Hibbert in the fourth quarter as D.J. Augustin picked up five quick points to cut the lead to 15. Augustin had a follow-up layup roll out, putting Tyler Hansbrough at the line, splitting a free throw to make it 14. Hansbrough was a big bright spot off the bench, scoring 12 and playing effectively, seeming the only bench player for the longest time to have anything to offer.
After a Wayne Ellington miss, Paul George, who was so out of focus offensively it was beginning to take a toll on his defensive game, drilled a three-pointer at the top of the arc to bring the score to 88-77. Indiana had trimmed nine off the lead, George and Augustin giving relief for Indiana's woeful three point exhibition. Lance Stephenson, on a pretty quiet, stat stuffing night (finishing with 13 points and eight boards), went coast to coast to draw the game within single digits.
George Hill followed with a layup to bring it to seven and the focused Pacers defense, led by a David West block, put Stephenson in position to drive, fouling out Tyler Zeller to get to the line, hitting both, making the lead just five. David West was quiet during the comeback, but was Indiana's second leading scorer with 15 points, leading them with nine rebounds, getting to the line nine times. Zeller was particularly problematic throughout the night, hitting an open jumper throughout the night for 18 points, making his exit a big advantage for Indiana.
Hill followed up a Kyrie Irving miss with a layup, finishing off Indiana's 17-0 run, making the game 88-85. George Hill was spectacular in the stretch run for tonight's game, scoring 11 fourth quarter points for a team high 27. While Kyrie Irving had a big game, scoring 29, Irving was simply unable to contain Hill on the other end of the floor, allowing Hill plenty of opportunities to get easy looks at the basket.
Irving would hit the ensuing jumper out of the Cavaliers time out to snap the run, Paul George splitting a pair of free throws on the other end. Indiana lived at the line tonight, shooting 46 attempts, but were incredibly inconsistent especially as the game wore on, missing 15 along the way. The 15 misses were the same number attempted all night by Cleveland, allowing room for gripes, but Cleveland did a bulk of their damage away from the basket despite getting healthy production in the paint in the first half.
With the clock ticking under four minutes, the Pacers trailed 90-86, Indiana strung together stops on Cleveland's next five possessions, but a pair of blocks and turnovers allowed the Cavs to keep Indiana off the scoreboard for over two minutes. Hill would shoot a three-pointer at the top of the arc with just under two minutes left, drawing a foul from Shaun Livingston, hitting two of the three attempts to make it a two point game. Irving responded with a tough jumper falling backwards to push the Cavs lead to four.
West would find George for a layup to make the lead two, setting up the game's biggest play, when Kyrie Irving had a pass read perfectly by Stephenson, who grabbed the steal, threw the outlet pass to Hill, who was fouled again by Livingston, hitting the layup, and sending him to the line to put Indiana in the lead at 93-92 with 46 seconds remaining. Irving found his way to the line on an impressive step move to return the lead to the Cavs, putting the game on the shoulders of Paul George, who put up a corner three, finding nothing but net to put Indiana back up 96-94.
Through all of this, Jeff Pendergraph remained in the game in Hibbert's place by the choice of Brian Shaw. With Irving attacking the basket, Pendergraph would take a charge, split free throws on the other end, and effectively seal Indiana's incredible comeback. Pendergraph's night will be largely forgotten due to his one point, two rebound stat line, but it's hard to imagine Roy Hibbert, who had a solid night early with eight points, trying to set up some defensive intensity in the pitiful second and third quarter stretch with three blocks and was cheering his team back the entire fourth quarter, making the plays Pendergraph did tonight to help seal the victory.
Pendergraph finished the game with a +23, and while that can't all be attributed to him, it's a somewhat fitting tribute to the game he played in the fourth quarter, as Indiana outscored the Cavaliers 35-10, matching their total output from the second and third quarters combined, while stepping their game up defensively to complete the comeback. Of course, there are a lot of areas the Pacers will certainly need to clean up moving forward, but it was a start, and hopefully a spark, to what Indiana could use with the playoffs starting in four games.
Indiana's win not only was great from a morale standpoint, but from the standings as well, allowing them to maintain a healthy 3.5 game lead over the Brooklyn Nets, the same team they'll tip off against Friday. The Pacers have had some unfortunate struggles against the Nets, but a win Friday at home will not only allow Indiana to avoid the season sweep, but will clinch the third seed once and for all.
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