The Indiana Pacers offered up a stress-free win for fans last night when they jumped on the Toronto Raptors early and played from ahead all night. Brandon Rush didn't start the game but he finished off the Raps by pumping in 26 points for his second-straight 20-point game and continuing to show the growth and maturity in his game we all hope will stick this time around.
Both the Pacers as a whole and Rush as an individual, showed with their performance last night how things are different this year. And by different, I mean much better.
The Pacers have had frustrating losses stained by stagnant offense, turnovers and general poor play down the stretch. Games they could've, probably should've, won but in the end certainly deserved to lose. Those 50/50 game losses included a 4-point loss to the Bogut-less Bucks, a 3-point loss to the Yao-less Rockets and a maddening 7-point loss to Phoenix. These particular losses were excruciating because the Pacers were in control of all three games but blew numerous opportunities throughout to seize the game and extend their lead. Then as crunch time arrived, they couldn't shake the poor play and POOF -- a bitter loss to swallow.
As nasty as these losses were, the team's reaction to the losses shows the change in this year's team.
After all three of those clunkers, the Pacers came out and looked much better at both ends of the floor en route to double-digit W's. For some reason, in the losses they forget that not moving the ball and being hard to defend makes them much easier to beat. Then with the painful reminder reviewed on tape and adjustments in approach and attitude in place, the Blue and Gold come out executing to near perfection.
The huge follow-up wins include the 31-point win over Denver, a 14-point road win over Cleveland and last night's 24-point win over Toronto. The Pacers even followed up their tough losses to Orlando and Oklahoma City with wins over Miami and the Lakers, respectively.
While the trend of stopping the bleeding after losses is certainly a nice development this year, it isn't the only indication of change. They way they've closed these righting-the-ship wins also highlights the change. In past years, a third quarter collapse not only meant losing a healthy lead but often times losing the game as well. Leads they did cling to for wins were brought about more relief than satisfaction.
After 19 games this year, when the Pacers have played well, they've weathered the inevitable runs this year and put teams away. Last night, the Pacers let a 28-point quickly slip to 15 midway through the third quarter. This is where Brandon Rush enters the picture.
After the starting unit had the Pacers rolling early against Toronto, Rush came off the bench to turbo charge the effort in the first half, scoring 16 points and making all four of his 3-point attempts before the half. When Rush entered the game midway through the third quarter, Toronto was about to make their run. Rush had two 3-point looks during the little drought that barely drew the front iron.
Were we in for a classic 2009-10 Rush performance? Was the easy offense of the first half going to be backed up by a disappearing act in the second half? Would Rush get down after the two misses and try to float the rest of the way home?
Those questions were quickly answered when Rush found himself open for a corner three in front of the Raptors bench. Without hesitation he released another 3-ball and this time it splashed through the net igniting a 10-2 run by the Pacers to put them back in control before the end of the quarter.
There was more doubt in my mind about Rush's second half response than there was about whether the Pacers would collapse. When this year's team is playing well, like they were on Monday night, they seem to be able to settle down and make plays to maintain their advantage. That 10-2 third quarter run exemplifies the team's strength when you consider that four different players score the ten points.
As for Rush, he helped close out the game with 26 points and some on the ball defense that was simply fun to watch. He's carrying himself in a different level of confidence thus far and, while I remain skeptical and hopeful at the same time that Rush can continue to consistently produce, it sure is nice to see the improvment in his game to date.
As for the team, the ability to take responsibilty for the losses and on-court lapses, refusing to accept any losing has certainly played a part in their ability to stop losing streaks at two games and bounce back ready to play. The next step is finding a way to win ugly by shaking the poor play during a game and cobbling together enough good possessions to hold on and turn those close losses into wins.