The upbeat nature of David West after his Indiana Pacers were waxed at home against the Atlanta Hawks a week ago was somewhat puzzling. West seemed to feel good about the team moving forward even though they had put up the worst half in franchise history. The ensuing bench led victory against Milwaukee led to a third quarter collapse against Miami, but if West felt positive about Indiana last week, today's win against the Oklahoma City Thunder was a culmination of that optimism.
The Pacers looked comfortable, much more in tune with their early season form than their recent maddening March play. It didn't take long for them to really appear ready for today's game; a quick 7-2 lead on 3-4 shooting helped set them up well for the long haul in today's game. The Pacers and Thunder would swap runs throughout the first quarter, with C.J. Watson stepping in for a pair of threes to close the quarter, giving Indiana a 22-21 advantage after one.
Watson's play continued to be a huge boost, with another three pointer and a three point play moving Indiana ahead 35-29 as Luis Scola and the bench pushed the lead to eight points halfway through the quarter. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook guided Oklahoma City back into the game, with a Watson layup with 22 seconds remaining in the half pushing Indiana's lead to 47-45 at the break.
The Thunder would hit their first four shots of the third quarter, pushing into the lead, with Paul George's foul plagued first half turning into a positive keeping Indiana afloat during OKC's push and with David West and Lance Stephenson, getting the Pacers into the lead. Indiana would close the quarter on a 9-4 run to go up eight heading into the final quarter.
Watson's fourth three of the night would give Indiana a double figures lead, but after leading 87-77 with 6:58 left in the game, the Thunder would use an 11-2 run to tie the game at 89-89. George would break the deadlock with a big three pointer with just over two minutes ago as Durant responded on the other end. West would once again put Indiana up three.
With West blocking a Durant three pointer with just under a minute to go, it would set up Stephenson for a calm pull up three pointer to give Indiana a 97-91 lead with 34 seconds left. A pair of Oklahoma City threes and a couple of missed Pacers free throws would keep the door open for the Thunder, but West would go onto make it a two possession game with eight seconds remaining, as Indiana closed out a 102-97 victory over the Thunder.
The Pacers shot 52.8% on the night, a huge advantage over Oklahoma City's 42.9% effort. They needed every ounce of that shooting advantage after seeing a huge first half deficit in free throw attempts that allowed the Thunder to stay right alongside the Pacers, but Indiana was plagued to a ridiculous degree with turnovers tonight, wrapping up with 23 on the night.
Those turnovers led to 20 points for Oklahoma City and 12 extra field goal attempts. The sharp shooting, coupled with a dominate rebounding edge (46-32) really benefited Indiana when turnovers would have no doubt been the discussion point if the Pacers were have given up their fourth quarter lead. The shooting came in spite of Roy Hibbert's own shooting numbers, the big fella lumbering to a woeful 0-9 night.
Hibbert's looks were good all night, but nothing was going for him. Fortunately for the Pacers, Hibbert remained a part of the game, picking up defensively in the second half and putting himself in solid position for stops as well as rebounds, coming up with six on the night. While not a great final total, there were still good things with Hibbert as the game progressed, which will be a necessity for Indiana's postseason success with or without offensive contributions.
The real benefit of Indiana's success tonight came from the bench. C.J. Watson was lethal tonight, scoring 20 points on 6-10 shooting, with four three pointers. Watson led a bench effort of 41 points, which included double figure nights from Luis Scola and Ian Mahinmi. Scola had 10 points, continuing his shooting renaissance with a 5-7 night. Mahinmi was a huge energy boost with 11 points and five rebounds. All three of his offensive rebounds turned into points for the Pacers.
Evan Turner, despite going scoreless on 0-1 shooting with four turnovers, was key as a distributor, with four assists helping Indiana total 23 on 36 field goals, even coming up with stops on the defensive end in his possessions matched up against Durant. No one was a bigger assist bonus than Lance Stephenson, who recorded his fifth triple-double of the season with a 17 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assist effort. Indiana's success earlier in the season came in part due to Stephenson's ability as a playmaker, and he picked a great game to resurrect that style after languishing in poor overall performances since March.
Stephenson was 7-10 on the night, showing no fear on a pull up three pointer against Durant with 34 seconds left that went and gave Indiana a crucial six point lead down the stretch. While I've criticized Stephenson recently for playing outside of the team and trying to make home run plays for himself, I've less a problem when he's part of the team's offense for the entire game, as he was tonight.
This type of play may cost the Pacers a game at some point in the playoffs, but it still does provide Indiana with a necessary edge when it comes to getting necessary points from a source that doesn't rely on Paul George drilling a tightly contested ISO three pointer with the clock running down. That's not to take away from George, however, who himself had 20 points and 12 rebounds, including three threes, none bigger than with two minutes left in the fourth, halting OKC's game tying run.
George was saddled with first half trouble, but lifted Indiana in the third quarter with 10 as part of his 15 second half points. Indiana's offense also benefited hugely from David West, who was a force all night, leading the Pacers with 21 points on 9-11 shooting. When Indiana needed a bucket, West was there to provide Indiana with a shot in the arm. West's shots came at points where Indiana needed to regain the lead or just create more space between them and the ensuing pushes of the Thunder.
Oklahoma City was led by Kevin Durant, who was hot early as part of his 38 point effort. The Pacers did as well as possible to hold Durant under 50% at 13-27, West's block on him providing a game changing six point swing. Russell Westbrook had 21 himself, but despite a hot stretch early in the fourth by Caron Butler, no one else on the Thunder provided a third support option for the Thunder that they needed to combat the Pacers today.
Today's game did more than just improve the overall sense of optimism with the team, it really showed the importance of C.J. Watson and the bench. While it's easy to pump the brake and say the Pacers aren't completely out of the woods as they wrap up their penultimate regular season game, Watson's performance saved Indiana from a loss, plain and simple.
Watson won't play as well as he did today every night, but what he provides is exactly what Indiana was lacking when he was out; a scoring punch to alleviate team wide struggles. Indiana's "chemistry" issues coinciding with Watson and Andrew Bynum's injuries wasn't entirely a coincidence. When a team hits the skids at the same time their margin of error decreases due to injuries, it helps amplify nearly every concern and struggle the team has.
If Watson was still injured, there's little doubt the Pacers get rolled up pretty nicely today and the same discussion continues about Indiana's lack of cohesion and their continued descent into madness. Instead, the narrative becomes about Indiana working their way out of the mist. Despite Indiana's slight slippage in defensive intensity, their issue the past six weeks has almost always been an offensive one, and the return of Watson helps immediately with that.
The win moves Indiana's magic number to clinch the top seed to one, meaning a win against Victor Oladipo and the Orlando Magic in the regular season finale on Wednesday will guarantee them the top seed. The Miami Heat losing one of their final games at Washington or against Philadelphia will also clinch the top seed for Indiana. Without looking too far ahead with the top seed being a hot potato in the East, the Pacers will be looking at a potential first round matchup with the Atlanta Hawks for the second straight year.