The Philadelphia 76ers once again gave the Indiana Pacers a tough fight as the two teams squared off for the second time in four days with the Sixers taking the first shot at the Pacers, jumping ahead 15-6 behind a trio of three pointers to open the game. Indiana would never retake the lead in the first quarter, fighting from behind and heading into the second quarter down three.
The Pacers jumped ahead 27-26 early in the second quarter before getting caught in a back and forth game, with seven lead changes and five ties throughout the quarter before the Pacers closed the half on an 10-2 run to take a 58-50 advantage at the break. The biggest constant for the Pacers was their ability to get to the free throw line, with Paul George shooting 13 first half free throws and Lance Stephenson putting in another five as part of his 19 points.
Indiana never had a real constant offensively in the first half, but did shoot 50% thanks to an impressive first half from Stephenson (who was 7-9) and the bench, getting valuable minutes from Donald Sloan in his return to action in a night the bench really helped carry the Indiana offense in the game. Unfortunately for the Pacers, the second half opened much the same way the first did, with Philly coming out on a 13-4 run to grab a 63-62 advantage.
The third quarter run by Philadelphia was helped along by Indiana's horrific third quarter shooter. The Pacers started the quarter 13.6% at 3-22 shooting, but were able to defend Philadelphia well enough to keep them from the scoreboard in the second half of the quarter, when the 76ers scored just four points. Indiana, leading 67-65 with under two minutes in the third quarter, got a pair of huge back-to-back threes from George and George Hill, pushing their lead to eight.
Indiana could never quite push the game beyond the eight point wall with them taking a 75-67 lead into the fourth. Despite shooting just 6-27 from the field in the third quarter, the Pacers managed to tie the quarter 17-17 to avoid giving up ground to a Sixers team that was primed for a fourth quarter push. Ian Mahinmi was huge in his return with 10 points off the bench, with him and Luis Scola helping to maintain the Pacers lead in the quarter's first five minutes.
The 76ers would eventually slice the Indiana lead to three, trailing 88-85 with under three minutes in the game. The lack of ball movement all night really stung the Pacers offense in the second half and put them in a difficult situation with the game winding down. So it was only fitting that ball movement helped the David West find Hill for a crucial corner three pointer to double the advantage at 91-85.
The poor offense came out in the next play, but Roy Hibbert was in position for a huge offensive rebound and put back and one to give Indiana a nine point advantage. The offensive rebounding helped the Pacers out a lot in the second half, grabbing 16 on the night, none bigger than Hibbert's. George would lay the capper on the game with a vicious dunk on Henry Sims for another and one that helped wrap up Indiana's 99-90 victory over the 76ers.
It was a "win's a win" kind of night and the Pacers definitely wrapped up their first 50-win season since 2003-04 and fourth straight with a general thud. The offensive execution throughout the night helped keep Philadelphia alive and well. The Pacers had just 13 assists on 31 field goals, with the Pacers shooting percentage diving to a frigid 38.3%. They allowed Philadelphia to come up with the better shooting night at 43.2%, but got a huge boost from free throw shooting.
Paul George's ability to get to the line in the first half helped set the tone for Indiana's free throw shooting on the night. George was laying bricks with everyone on his 4-14 shooting night, but a career high night in free throw attempts helped set up his 24 point night. George was 15-16 from the free throw line, not only singlehandedly outscoring Philly from the line 15-11, but was part of Indiana's 31-38 free throw night.
The Pacers also won the turnover battle 19-15, capitalizing on points off turnovers for a 22-12 advantage. Lance Stephenson had a big first half with his 19 points as part of his 25 on the night. He shot 7-9 in the first half, but just 1-7 in the second half (hitting a patented fourth quarter three to give Indiana a six point advantage). Stephenson after the game said the reason he wore green shoes for St. Patrick's Day was that he "did it for the Irish people," which was one of three interesting things to come out of the night.
Along with Stephenson's post game interview and George's dunk, Mahinmi's play was a big positive for Indiana. In his return, the Ferocious Frenchman had 10 points on 4-5 shooting, throwing down a big dunk in the second half. With Andrew Bynum sitting out with a swollen knee, Mahinmi continued to prove himself in the backup center position despite once again getting popped in the mouth.
Despite overall poor nights offensively from most the team, everyone did offer up some positives. Hibbert's offensive rebound late in the fourth quarter, Hill's three triples were all well timed and pushed Indiana's lead, and despite West's 3-14 shooting night, he had 12 rebounds and a pair of steals on the night. For Philadelphia, it was a bit more somber as the 76ers lose their franchise record 21st straight game.
While the front office and fanbase want to pile up the losses, being purposely set up in such dire position for a crack at chance seems a bit extreme. While Indiana's own trip through the rebuild minefield may have been reckless and unsound, all it proved was that front office competence is more important than draft position as teams like Cleveland languish their way to a potential fourth straight lottery after landing four top five picks in the last three drafts (including two #1 overall picks).
With much of the highly touted potential 2014 draft class showing a little less at the college level than expected, one would hope Sam Hinkie has that competence to justify dropping a franchise and its fans into a stretch of basketball a 9-73 team never had. The alternative of Indiana losing to Philadelphia tonight at home would've been far more problematic, but it's still a little less than endearing to see despite Indiana doing everything but give the wins to the 76ers in each of their last two games.
The Pacers will look ahead for a Wednesday night showcase with the New York Knicks. The game will get ESPN billing and Phil Jackson may even be in attendance as the Knicks have won six straight games (albeit all against non-playoff teams). I had hoped the Pacers would've turned a bit of a corner in the Detroit game, but they didn't show much tonight, meaning they'll need to pull out a whole lot more if they hope to cap a season sweep of the 27-40 Knicks.