The Indiana Pacers were welcomed on their West Coast road trip by the Phoenix Suns in much the same fashion they've been welcomed by the Suns in each of the past two seasons: in blowout fashion with the Pacers grasping for answers rather than a victory. Though as nominal as it is in the face of a 116-99 defeat, the Pacers did fare better against Phoenix tonight, at least through three quarters, than they generally have in the Jeff Hornacek era.
Despite falling behind 18-8 early, the Pacers bucked their slow start with a 13-2 run that put them in the lead at 21-20. Gerald Green put in a pair of threes to end the first quarter, but C.J. Watson managed to keep Indiana on pace with six points of his own, giving them a 28-26 lead after one. Indiana's shooting numbers soared in the second quarter, putting them above 60% for much of the first half.
It allowed the Pacers to notch a season high 56 points in the first half, leading by nine points with 90 seconds left in the half. But a series of missed layups and transition points for the Suns saw that nine point lead shrivel to just two points at the break. Phoenix came out of the break swinging, finishing a 17-3 run that put Phoenix up 64-59. The Suns appeared to be in control of the game, moving up by double figures, but six trips to the free throw line in the final minute helped Indiana trim the lead to just four heading into the final quarter.
Indiana's hot shooting came back on them in the fourth quarter though, with the Pacers hitting just three field goals in the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter, simply not enough to contend with the Phoenix offense, which blew up their lead to 18 points en route to a 17-point victory. Despite the final quarter, Indiana shot more than respectably for them at 48.2%, but still allowed 50% shooting to the Suns.
The biggest difference in tonight's game not only came from the play of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, but in just how easily Phoenix proved capable of scoring points. When Indiana found their biggest success, it was from being able to hit shots. Their offense proved their best defense tonight, with made baskets allowing them to get back in transition.
When they hit shots, they were able to find success against Phoenix in the half court. When they missed baskets, though? Oh, boy. Phoenix had 38 fast break points, a nightmare turnout against a team that for numerous reasons has to labor their way to two points. Indiana's been on the wrong side of fast break point differential this season, but tonight was a rare case when they actually had points in transition, scoring 15, only to find themselves outscored by 23 points.
To make matters worse for Indiana's defense, even stops didn't keep Phoenix from scoring. The Suns had nine offensive rebounds on the night, but they resulted in 14 points, outscoring Indiana by eight. Indiana also had 19 turnovers and just four three pointers compared to 12 by Phoenix. The staggering disadvantage Indiana had in almost every facet of the game makes a 17-point loss seem almost kind. And that's without even bringing up the nights by Phoenix's starting backcourt.
Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe had no issues against the Phoenix defense; with the two combining for 61 points on 22-35 shooting. Dragic had 34 of those points, including five three pointers, making a mockery of anything defensively the Pacers stood for. Bledsoe's 27 hardly registered in light of Dragic's night, which certainly only makes matters more frightening for whatever chance Indiana had of winning tonight.
And while team balance is a nice thing to have, there's hardly a substitute for a player who can get you 20 points almost any night. That's an element Indiana simply doesn't have with their leading scorer on the season being Roy Hibbert at 13.2 points per game. It creates too difficult a situation to score when you don't have anyone to rely on to cancel out a night like Dragic had tonight, especially when Phoenix increased their scoring in every quarter, while Indiana saw a steady decrease.
That's not to take away the positives, however. C.J. Miles finally saw some positives offensively with a team high 17 points on 6-9 shooting. Together with C.J. Watson (11 points) is when Indiana saw their best success of the night. Roy Hibbert picked up a 15 point, 10 rebound double double, grabbing four offensive rebounds on the night. Luis Scola also played well in his time on the floor, with eight points, five rebounds, and a pair of assists.
David West reached double figures with 10 points, but a series of great finds leading to missed layups dropped his assist numbers and led to some frustrating decisions from West in the third quarter as Phoenix mounted their double figure lead. It didn't help matters much that Solomon Hill played poorly, Rodney Stuckey made minimal impact, and Donald Sloan continues to regress towards the mean.
On Sloan, specifically, after beginning the season on a (relative) tear, he had his fourth straight single digit game, doubling his season total from the first 14 games. Sloan averaged 13.4 points per game after dropping 29 in a win against Dallas, but has averaged just 4.3 points per game in the four games since. With George Hill still not expected to return any time soon, it seems only a matter of time before the point guard rotation favors Watson (who played more minutes tonight).
The power forward rotation for the time being also favors Scola ahead of Lavoy Allen. While Allen has played well, Scola has too, doing so tonight, but it will be interesting to see how Frank Vogel moves forward with Scola and Allen after Vogel's praises of Allen, though Allen's greatest strength, offensive rebounding, is a worthless endeavor for Indiana against the Suns. The Pacers can get their best offense from second chance opportunities, but against the Suns, the risk far outweigh the rewards, limiting what Allen could effectively bring the team in terms of rebounding.
The Pacers are now 0-2 on their current road trip, dropping their first game out West. Things don't get any easier for Indiana, who will travel northwest to face the 14-4 Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday. The Blazers are 9-2 at home on the season and between big game potential from Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, will put the Pacers in another difficult position defensively.