One constant for the Indiana Pacers in their inconsistent season has been their play against quality opponents. Heading into tonight's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Pacers had totaled just three wins against teams with winning records, none since December 23, when they defeated New Orleans 96-84.
Indiana didn't look capable of bucking the trend early, when the Cavs stormed out of the gate, hitting nine of their first 11 shots en route to a 31 point first quarter. In the Pacers defense, though they weren't playing any, they managed to keep pace with the Cavaliers, getting a pair of threes from Damjan Rudez to end the quarter, drawing them to within four, trailing 31-27.
LeBron James scored the second quarter's first 10 points for Cleveland, helping to push the lead towards double figures, a 10-2 run putting Cleveland ahead 45-33 just past the halfway point of the second. Though the Pacers kept the game within striking distance, they fought hard to simply draw the game to within single digits, watching a five point lead swell up to eight with a half ending three by Kyrie Irving as the Pacers trailed 55-47.
J.R. Smith hit a pair of threes to open the half, pushing Cleveland back up double figures, leading 67-54 halfway through the quarter. From that point, the Pacers began to scrap and lock in defensively, holding Cleveland to just three points the remainder of the quarter. Over the course of the final six minutes, Indiana inched closer, outscoring the Cavs 13-3 to end the quarter.
Towards the end of the quarter, Roy Hibbert fouled James hard, with James coming up limping as walked to the bench holding his right wrist. Hibbert was assessed a flagrant foul for the hit, setting James up to heroically split his free throws with a bum wrist. Hibbert finished the quarter strong, drawing Indiana to within three points heading into the fourth quarter.
Despite a strong close to the quarter and a heavy dose of momentum, Indiana surrendered early points to the Cavs, watching their three point deficit grow to six on an Irving three. Solomon Hill was a huge lift for the Pacers in the fourth quarter, not only defensively, but offensively as well, coming up with a big and one that drew Indiana to within three at 75-72.
Even despite his wrist problems, James had no issues putting Cleveland on his back to score six straight for the Cavs, pushing their lead back up to nine, and putting Indiana in a dire spot against the league's best player playing through injury. Out of the timeout, however, Indiana responded in a big way, scoring nine unanswered as part of a 12-2 run, led by not only Hill, but C.J. Miles, who scored eight in the run, including a pair of threes.
It was Miles's second three that gave Indiana their first lead of the game at 84-83, but Irving made the lead short lived, putting Cleveland back on top with a jumper. Trailing by a point with two minutes remaining, Miles put in his third three of the quarter, putting Indiana up two. As a response, Iman Shumpert put in a corner three when Indiana failed to corral the board on a previous miss, giving Cleveland a 92-91 advantage.
In need of a play with time running out, George Hill heaved up a ridiculous three pointer on a foul that somehow went, setting up a huge four point play for the Pacers to give them a three point lead. James's wrist must've bothered him on the ensuing possession, missing a three pointer. Shumpert came up with the rebound, temporarily anyway, before Miles ripped the ball from Shumpert to put him at the line for two.
The Pacers opened up a two possession lead. In the final minute, Hill would split a trip at the line, but with help from Hibbert, come up with this own miss that put Miles at the line. J.R. Smith would hit a pair of threes in the closing seconds, but more free throws from Hill would help keep Indiana in the lead, eventually closing out an impressive 103-99 win over the Cavs, halting their win streak at 12.
The win itself was impressive, but how the Pacers got there, with team wide contributions and the hard, keyed-in play they've really lacked in some of their recent games, was refreshing to see. Especially that they strung together two sharp performances in a row is encouraging for a certain subset of fans who enjoy Indiana grabbing nightly wins and playing towards something for this season.
Indiana had a bad turnover late, where James intercepted a pass for an easy breakaway dunk, but on the night, Indiana played a very clean game, turning the ball over just eight times and allowing just seven points off of turnovers (while scoring 17). As well, Indiana held a massive free throw advantage over Cleveland, outscoring them 21-8 on 14 extra attempts.
The Pacers dragged Cleveland's shooting percentage down to 44.9% on the game, holding them to just 15 third quarter points, in a half Indiana outscored Cleveland 56-44, including a huge 36-point fourth quarter that pushed Indiana into the lead and towards the win. It seemed in the third quarter that the Cavaliers were a difficult team to forge a comeback against with that kind of offense, but for a Pacers team capable of forcing stops and a Cavs defense incapable of doing the same late, it worked in Indiana's favor in a big way.
For Cleveland, LeBron James worked his way to the line eight times, but only Timofey Mosgov came up with any other free throw attempts for the Cavaliers. George Hill alone had more free throw attempts than Cleveland as a team, something that's quite often been the opposite case for Indiana, especially against a team led by James, injured wrist or otherwise. Hill on the night was a massive lift for the Pacers, continuing to look like a player taking a step forward from where he was last year.
Hill scored 20 points on 3-8 shooting, dishing out seven assists and coming up with big plays and big passes throughout the night, not the least of which being the huge four point play that swung the game into Indiana's favor for good. Though the individual wins and losses haven't been impressive, the Pacers improve to 7-5 with Hill in the lineup, though he's still working on a minute restriction.
Not only the play of Hill, but the play of the entire starting lineup was invaluable to Indiana coming away with the win tonight. For just the second time this season, the Pacers had three 20-point scorers, led by C.J. Miles, who scored 26. Miles had 16 in the fourth quarter with three threes. Miles not only hit big shots late, but him ripping the ball from Iman Shumpert late was a crucial turn in Indiana's favor.
The biggest surprise of the night was the turn on the play of Solomon Hill late. Early he looked like the invisible Solomon Hill, making marginal impact with his defense against James, and not taking much part in the offense until halfway through the third when he left a runner short. But from that point, he opened up and locked in. Solo had 11 points to close the game, including nine in the fourth quarter, a massive dunk, and focused defense in his effort against James, bum wrist or otherwise.
Given his play on the season, it's hard to take too much from this performance as far as consistency goes, but it would be great if tonight flipped a switch for Solo, who's certainly been underwhelming on both sides of the floor at times, much more offensively. He not only scored nine in the fourth, but some big time shots went for him, shooting 5-8 on the night. The way he stepped up to face an (albeit hurt) James can hopefully swing more confidence in his direction.
For as many came up big for the Pacers in the fourth quarter, early play from David West helped keep Indiana within striking distance. West scored 10 of his 20 points in the first quarter as Indiana struggled to keep pace with Cleveland's offensive onslaught, coming up with a 20 point, 13 rebound double double. Roy Hibbert also played well, reaching double figures with 10 points and eight boards. The bench offered spot minutes tonight, but a pair of early threes from Damjan Rudez, and six points from Luis Scola helped keep Indiana in good position as the Pacers came up with their best win of the season.
Indiana wrapped up their five game homestand with a 3-2 record, and will head out on the road for two of their next three before the All-Star Break, starting with the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday. The Pacers improve to 19-32 and will have a big chance to gain ground on the playoff picture with the game in Charlotte on Sunday, regardless of whether that's where Indiana "needs" to go as the All-Star Break nears.