Given the bad vibes fallout from the Indiana Pacers loss against Atlanta on Sunday, tonight's win against the Milwaukee Bucks was a refreshing detour as the season winds down, but one that has as plenty of potential in terms of shifting the season back in Indiana's direction. News broke earlier in the afternoon that Frank Vogel was going to rest all five of his regular starters despite the team sitting just 0.5 games back of the Miami Heat entering the night.
The Pacers opened with a starting lineup of Donald Sloan, Rasual Butler, Evan Turner, Luis Scola, and Ian Mahinmi, with Scola lifting the Pacers in an offensively fueled first quarter between the two teams, scoring 12 in the opening quarter. Indiana looked very sharp offensively, though competition likely didn't hurt, assisting on nine of their 12 first quarter field goals.
The game sat at 25-25 heading into the second quarter with neither team able to gain any real leverage on the scoreboard. Milwaukee led 33-31 when Turner hit his second of three three pointers to 12-3 run to put Indiana ahead by seven at 43-36. Ramon Sessions and Chris Copeland would swap threes on ensuing plays as Lavoy Allen pushed the Indiana lead to 47-39 with 4:03 remaining.
The Bucks responded with a 9-0 run to take back the lead with Scola closing strong with four in the final minute with Indiana taking a 53-50 lead into the break. For the most part, defense had taken the night off as well, but made a fashionable return for the third quarter as the Pacers jumped ahead 70-61 late in the third, using a 7-0 run while holding Milwaukee scoreless for four minutes.
Milwaukee once again closed the quarter strong, however, Brandon Knight trimming the Pacers lead to five heading into the final quarter. Once there, the Bucks wrapped up their 9-0 run to tie the game, a three pointer in C.J. Watson's return breaking the run and putting Indiana ahead three. More triples from Watson and Copeland would keep Milwaukee at bay before they finally broke through into the lead at 91-90 as the game reached its final four minutes.
The two teams would exchange blows down the stretch, the Pacers leading 101-99 with 17 seconds remaining. Sloan would miss two free throws, but a key Mahinmi rebound would help salvage the possession until Allen went to the line to split his pair. Chris Middleton would draw a three point foul with 4.7 seconds remaining on Mahinmi, and with Milwaukee down three, put in all three free throws to tie the game at 102-102.
Indiana eventually found a late inbounds on the game's final play to Copeland, who after looking for a catch and shoot, drove and with a floater, found the bottom of the net, helping to seal Indiana's 104-102 win with everyone jumping off of the bench in excitement for Copeland's game winner. While this was happening, the Memphis Grizzlies were sealing a second half comeback against Miami, which moved the Pacers back into first place in the Eastern Conference by half a game over the Heat.
Even though this game will mean very little moving forward from a W-L standpoint (even had the starters played, the outcome likely would've remained the same against the league's worst Bucks), it may prove to be the most important game of the season for the Pacers, assuming of course, the exuberance showed by the starters and bench players after the win is any indication of what they can accomplish moving forward.
The starters were very active on the bench throughout the game, looking engaged and cheering on their teammates. While some of this no doubt awareness to not draw negative attention to their actions, the post game celebration with Copeland was the closest bit of camaraderie this team has shown in what feels like the entirety of 2014. It looked like the Pacers from earlier in the season, the team that enjoyed each other's company, the team that led opposing point guards to never forget the way they celebrated on their home floor.
For everyone on the Pacers roster this season, no one deserved that game winner more than Copeland. Copeland has struggled all season to find time on the floor, but tonight was his opportunity to shine, and he absolutely did, going 7-8 from the floor, 4-5 from three point range, as he led the bench bench with 18 points with three assists. If it's one thing the starters can take from tonight's game is how well the ball was moved tonight.
Indiana assisted on 26 of 41 buckets, allowing them to shoot 48% from the floor and sink in 11 three pointers on the night. As would be expected from a night led by the bench, the defense wasn't great, though the Bucks shot just 43%. Milwaukee had 14 offensive rebounds, two extra shots and 10 extra free throw attempts, creating chances for them to stay in the game, while getting in transition to outscore Indiana 14-7 in fast break points.
The bench starters were led by Luis Scola, who had 24 points and nine rebounds to lead four almost-double-doubles by Pacers tonight. Scola's shot was on point, especially in the first half. Scola finished 11-17 on the night, and was helped along by Evan Turner, who had 23 points and nine assists. Turner wasn't great on 9-18 shooting, but was able to find points when necessary.
Lavoy Allen and Donald Sloan each had eight and eight games, with Allen totaling on rebounds and Sloan on assists. Allen got extra burn tonight due to Ian Mahinmi foul trouble (surprise?), and while he struggled shooting at 3-9, came up with some nice buckets in the second half.
Rasual Butler was the fourth Pacer with double figures, summing up the total of Indiana's three point "woes." Butler was just 3-14 for the night and 2-10 from three point range, with his teammates going 9-11. Butler picked up some of the defensive slack with a pair of blocks. C.J. Watson finally returned to action and played fairly well despite some rust and timing issues he will need to work back from. Watson was 3-5 for eight points with two steals.
Quantifying the importance of tonight's game will take some time, but giving a boost to the bench unit (which scored 104 points), getting the starters some rest (they sure looked to have plenty of energy on the bench), and coming away with a last second win are all net positives that stand to work in Indiana's favor as they travel to Miami to face the Heat in the final regular season meeting between the two teams on Friday night. The game will feature the Pacers back in first place in at 54-25, in a game that will effectively decide the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.