What is Indiana Pacers coach Jim O'Brien thinking?
The man has trouble winning, and he has trouble losing. With the Pacers on threshold of NBA lottery heaven, O'Brien's squad shut down the streaking Bobcats on Tuesday for a rare win, and then nearly followed the gutsy performance with an encore presentation in Cleveland on Wednesday. It took an MVP performance in the final three minutes from LeBron James to keep the Pacers from shooting themselves in the foot again.
After the Pacers clawed back from an 18-point deficit to start the fourth quarter, the blue and gold's youth movement came to fruition against one of the best teams in the league. Behind stellar play from rookie A.J. Price, Brandon Rush and Roy Hibbert, Indiana (which was playing without injured star Danny Granger) pulled within one point of tying the game with 4:37 left in the fourth stanza. It was mind-twisting, tug-of-war for a Pacers fan. Do you want LeBron and Co. to destroy the Pacers in order to put them back in their rightful spot in the top four of the lottery, or wouldn't it be sweet to see the young core players knock off the mighty Cavaliers? The question didn't linger for long.
James had six points, two blocks, two steals and an assist in the final four minutes to seal the deal for a Cavs' 99-94 win, which clinched the Cavs the Central Division title.
One of LeBron's thundering blocks came on poor Brandon Rush. The second-year guard was given the assignment of dealing with LeBron during the fourth quarter. Rush performed admirably, but when LeBron turned it on in the final four minutes, Rush was burnt to a crisp. The block on Rush came right when the Pacers were within one of taking the lead and the play the Pacers ran came directly out of a timeout. Rush tried taking it to the hole but LeBron jumped from what seemed like the opposite 3-point line to smash the ball off the glass. The resulting turnover led to an Anderson Varejao bucket, followed by another Pacers turnover that then blessed James with an alley-oop dunk. The ship was sunk.
Overall, the Pacers were in this game for three of the four quarters, and they even looked good doing it. A fun-filled 11-0 run in the second quarter gave the Pacers an early lead and some confidence. But it was that characteristic third-quarter blemish that did the team in again. Starting at the end of the second, LeBron and co. rattled off a 20-2 run that ultimately led to a 31-17 third-quarter advantage. It set the stage for the miraculous comeback by the Pacers' young guys, but the Cavs showed their true colors during that run.
In the end, Pacers fans got the best of both worlds in this one. The team fought hard, led by three promising young guys at the forefront. And, ultimately, the loss helped them creep closer back to one of those top lottery spots. Check out more thoughts and observations after the jump.
- Roy Hibbert played well in the fourth quarter, but his fouling forced him to sit early in this one. He was out of the lineup by the sixth-minute mark in the first quarter after picking up two early fouls. But, contrary to how he used to play, he shook it off and came back to dominate the paint late. Credit him for that. He finished with a team-high 20 points and five rebounds in only 28 minutes.
- Dahntay Jones received the starting nod in place of Granger. He was barely OK in moments, but I was particularly bothered by a possession early in the second quarter when he was caught on the left wing between a rock and Cavs' defender, and he just flung the ball passively to a heavily-guarded Troy Murphy, who was standing a measly two feet away from him on the perimeter as well. Needless to say, Murphy bobbled the unexpected pass and the Cavs rolled down the court where Jones made the foul. Dumb play. Jones contributed 10 points tonight, but his -21 plus-minus (16 more than the next highest Pacer player) helps show what kind of game he had -- not a good one.
- Time to give more props to the young guns trio. Rush clocked in nearly 42 minutes of playing time for 13 points and Price dropped 14 points and six assists in 22 minutes. Rush, Price and Hibbert combined for 23 of the 29 fourth-quarter points for the blue and gold. Impressive. Price set the tone by getting into the paint and therefore either dishing out to Rush or dumping it off to Hibbert. Both took advantage of the opportunities. Rush, however, did blow it at the end with that blocked shot and he also had a terrible turnover when dribbling like a girl down the court (no offense to the opposite sex). On a somewhat fastbreak, Rush dribbled slowly and began fumbling around, so James ran the length of the court and just swiped the ball with ease. Rush looked helpless. He still has a long way to go.
Mike Dunleavy went down with a shoulder injury with one minute left in the third quarter. He was wincing pretty good as he headed toward the sideline. It was another uneventful night for Dunleavy, who had seven points on 2-of-7 shooting.
- Oh yeah, and then there's that dude, Troy Murphy, who had 19 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. Looks like he was trying to impress the team that he didn't get traded to at the deadline. Maybe next year, Troy. Fingers crossed.