The best thing that can be said about the Indiana Pacers' 102-94 loss to the Phoenix Suns is that they don't have to play the Suns anymore. They don't have to be haunted by Ghosts of Gerald Green anymore. They don't have to worry about one of tonight's two All-Star Game snubs Goran Dragic flattening the Pacers defense anymore. They don't have to see a frustrating amount of midrange shots go in. That would've been the case in a win given how the first half of this one played out, but it's certainly the case in a loss.
Some teams are built to beat others, and while that may sound like an excuse, when a team has six straight quarters like Phoenix had against a team on pace to be the best defensive team since the 2003-2004 Detroit Pistons, you usually need a little more than a gutsy game plan and a few good looks. But these two teams picked up exactly where they left off last week at this time, with Phoenix bulldozing the Indiana defense en route to a 66-49 halftime advantage.
Dragic was unstoppable as he scored 21 first half points on 8-12 shooting, leading the way for Phoenix, who broke their own season high vs. the Pacers defense for the first half. The Pacers finally showed some life in the third quarter, playing phenomenal defense as they stormed back from 19 down on an 20-5 run, holding Phoenix to just 11 third quarter points, as C.J. Watson trimmed the lead to one at 77-76 to open the fourth quarter.
But Watson's basket was one of the lone bright spots for the Indiana Pacers bench, who was outscored 40-7 on the night, allowing a subsequent 12-2 run that put Phoenix back up 11. The Pacers once again fought the score back to within a single point at 91-90 with four minutes left, but it was Green who scored four quick points and assisted on a Markieff Morris three to move the game to 98-92, effectively putting the game on ice despite some big fourth quarter play from George Hill.
Hill had 17 on 7-8 shooting as all five starters reached double figures. Hill struggled in the first half against Dragic, but was still very effective with his shooting to help guide the Pacers back in the fourth. It so happened that his one miss, a three pointer, was the shot that may have ended up haunting Indiana the most. The Pacers were just 1-15 from three point range in the game, and in a game where every point mattered late, Indiana's inability to find that extra point on a three pointer was crippling.
Paul George had the worst night from behind the arc, going 0-6 as part of a 5-17 night with 12 points and 12 rebounds. He had some nice looks in the fourth quarter, but the three ball just wasn't falling for the Pacers, and George's inability to find success shooting the ball (while also going just 2-4 from the line) was a big part of Indiana never seeing the lead in their comeback. George was fantastic on the defensive end in the second half, however, limiting Dragic's opportunities scoring, scoring seven second half points on 3-9 shooting.
Indiana's front line was big in the second half, led by All-Star Reserve Roy Hibbert, who had a team high 26 points on 9-17 shooting, finding consistency shooting in the second half after a boatload of first half misses, going a respectable 8-11 from the line, but missing two last minute free throws that could've made it a four point game. David West had 18 points, playing very well despite some first quarter foul trouble that helped Phoenix open up things offensively. Once West came in, the game calmed down and largely went in Indiana's favor, with him posting a +17 (Hill was a +15).
Lance Stephenson responded to his own All-Star snub with a 14/10/10 triple-double, his fourth of the year. It was clear he was visibly frustrated at the lack of an All-Star bid in the first half with the way he carried himself, but was able to put the team on his shoulders in the second quarter as the Pacers searched for any kind of answers against the Phoenix offense, who blasted Indiana for a 21-0 fast break advantage.
Indiana's failure to get back in transition was one of many things that put Indiana in the L column tonight, also aided by the poor bench play. In addition to their seven points, they shot just 3-15 with Danny Granger blanking on 0-3 shooting. Granger did have a pair of big blocks, but it was marginal when the team needed some kind of scoring punch from him or anyone else for that matter to relieve some scoring pressure off of the starters. But it's ironic the bench would struggle while Gerald Green would have another double figure game against the team that got rid of him because of his inability to produce points off the bench.
The officiating as well played a huge role in the ebb and flow of tonight's game. The momentum of the game shifted with the whistles and neither team was ever able to really adjust to which way the game was going to be called any given minute. When it favored one team, it really favored that team. But that's not to suggest the game was decided on whistles. Down the stretch, the Suns made the baskets they needed to to put the game away, but it was a confusing game, fitting that it would pick up directly after an equally trying and confusing road trip.
When coming home after a four game road trip, home teams are just 21-19 on the season in those games, so while the league average suggests tonight's loss was no anomaly, there isn't a team in the NBA that's been as good at home as Indiana, who dropped just their second home game of the season with the loss. They fall to 35-10, and give up possession of the league's best record to a scorching Oklahoma City team bent on league wide destruction.
The Pacers wrap up a fairly respectable 5-3 stand against Western Conference foes in their last nine games overall as they'll continue their three game home stand Saturday night against the Brooklyn Nets. The Nets hold an 8-2 mark in their last ten games, tops in the Eastern Conference as they make their push towards .500, led by All-Star Reserve Joe Johnson.