The Indiana Pacers stole a win from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Or maybe it was all T.J. McConnell? Either way, the Pacers picked up a much needed win tonight, escaping from Cleveland with a 114-111 win that probably shouldn’t have been, but would’ve been shocking had it not been thanks in large part to a Superman effort from McConnell.
To sum it up succinctly, very little of this game made sense. As if a two quarters of basketball where McConnell set the league for most steals in a half weren’t crazy enough, the Pacers still played so poorly on defense that they trailed by double figures. They then hit maybe their lowest point of the season, falling behind by as many as 19 in the third quarter.
Their spirited comeback was to be expected, but holding on for the win was maybe not so much, even as two possession leads disappeared late for the Pacers. Despite that, it was McConnell that helped secure the win, picking up his 10th steal of the night to give Indiana just enough of a cushion to snap their four-game losing streak.
With the win in check, it makes it easier to look back at how truly incomprehensible the first half was, even though the bad was really...well, bad. The Pacers opened the game shooting 6-6, which turned out to be a necessity as their defense allowed the Cavs to score at will themselves.
Indiana’s defense never let them build any kind of lead despite the quick start offensively, but they did hold a 15-14 halfway through the quarter. That dissipated immediately on a Jarrett Allen alley oop, setting Cleveland on a 10-0 run that put them ahead by nine. That’s when McConnell flipped a switch, scoring and then stealing the ball on five straight possessions, the Pacers regaining the lead on a 13-0 run.
The Pacers stumbled a bit to end the quarter, but managed to find their footing enough to take a five point lead early in the second. That lead lasted for all of one minute, the Cavs going back up on a veritable layup line. McConnell continued his intensity, however, salvaging whatever was happening elsewhere in the game to keep them competitive until the Cavaliers simply blew it open by outscoring Indiana 19-8 to close the half.
That wasn’t the low point, but some of the stats to come out of the first half sure felt like it. McConnell compiled nine steals in the first half, directly leading to 17 points. It was part of a half where Cleveland committed 18 turnovers overall, giving Indiana a 26-4 advantage in points off turnovers.
If it’s hard to believe just how Indiana could be losing by 10 with that on their resume, look no further than their overall defense, where Cleveland shot 59.5% in the half, a steady 6-13 from deep (the Pacers were just 2-11), and outrebounded Indiana 26-6. That is not a mistake, the Pacers had six rebounds total in the first half, less than the Cavs pulled in on the offensive glass (7).
The rebounding issue was really bad, especially as it continued into the third quarter, but mixed in with just not having any real purpose on the glass, the Pacers simply weren’t getting any stops with how easily the Cavaliers were scoring at the rim. Indiana has been the best team scoring in the paint and the worst team allowing points in the paint and it all came together in this one as the Pacers ultimately outscored Cleveland 68-62 inside.
The low point of this one came in the third quarter, when Indiana misses coupled with a continued onslaught of Cleveland buckets pushed the game to 19 points at 79-60 on a brutal five-point swing when Myles Turner made a three after the shot clock had expired only to have Taurean Prince somehow find Allen inside for a layup.
At that point, McConnell again lifted the Pacers with a layup of his own, then finding Turner for a three that counted this time. Turner scored five, as too did Brogdon, cutting the lead down to seven in just over three minutes of game action. A second Turner three of the corner made it a four-point game, but a series of unfortunate events involving JaVale McGee getting dunks and blocks doubled that lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The Pacers, these days no stranger to falling behind by double figures in the fourth, got their comeback push from Jeremy Lamb and Domantas Sabonis, a rare moment in Indiana finding success with them together at the 4 & 5. Sabonis, after struggling most of the night, scored five straight to close the game to one, going ahead on an Edmond Sumner steal and breakaway layup.
The Pacers went up by four with just over four minutes to go, but allowed a couple of empty possessions to keep the game from getting to seven, allowing Collin Sexton to cut it to one on a three, then take the lead on a pair of free throws. These moments in games have been absolutely killer for the Pacers recently, when the offense breaks down and the opposing team just settles into a nice 7-9 point run.
That did not happen tonight, however, in large part to thanks to the Cavaliers themselves. On back-to-back possessions with a one point lead, Cleveland turned the ball over with passes into the backcourt, giving Indiana just enough room to finally get a late shot to go, the second three of the quarter from Justin Holiday, leading to McConnell’s 10th steal, an outlet to Brogdon for a four point lead.
That lead barely held, but it ultimately did, giving Indiana the three point win, snapping a four-game skid and giving them their lone win on the road trip. By the end of this one, Indiana had cut the rebounding deficit to 16, aided by some timely Cleveland misses. Their shooting percentage dropped nearly eight points to 51.8%.
The Pacers meanwhile, shot 56.6% for the game despite their struggles late, getting six threes in the second half. Cleveland had played a much cleaner game in the second half until late, wrapping up the night with 26 turnovers, giving Indiana a commanding 35-12 advantage in points off turnovers, and a somewhat surprising 14-9 edge in fast break points, which doesn’t exactly speak well to Indiana’s struggles defending the paint.
McConnell finished the night with a triple double, scoring 16 points (on 8-8 shooting!), dishing 13 assists, and wrapping up the game with 10 steals. In doing so, he joins unique company, becoming the sixth player to pick up a points/assists/steal triple double, the first since 1998 and the first to do so off the bench.
T.J. McConnell sets an NBA RECORD with 9 steals in a half!— NBA (@NBA) March 4, 2021
The record for a full game is 11. pic.twitter.com/O0ctYizMmc
The numbers are there, but the impact may have still been greater than the numbers showed. With the Pacers reeling all night, McConnell was there in each stretch to pull them out of the fire and get them some much needed boost. It wasn’t always sustainable, but it was a necessity in a game that could’ve looked much worse at the break than even the completely terrible 61-51 halftime score did.
It was the type of performance the Pacers needed when the only other player to have any notable consistency was Brogdon, who had 29 points on a smooth 12-15 shooting (3-3 from deep), though he did finish with a team high five turnovers. Brogdon’s scoring was there all night for the Pacers, including a big time jumper with 38 seconds to push Indiana lead to five.
Sabonis finished with 18 points, struggling for much of the game, but scoring seven halfway through the fourth to help push Indiana complete their comeback. J. Holiday also brought some timely shooting, hitting two in the final period after missing all of his attempts to that point. The same was true for Turner, who hit a pair in the third as Indiana worked their way back into the game initially, also blocking four shots, two in the third quarter run.
Outside of McConnell, the lone bright spot in the first half was that of Sumner. Sumner was a huge asset alongside McConnell to help bring Indiana back after they had fallen behind by nine in the first quarter, scoring six of the 13 points, even blocking Dylan Windler at the three point line for good measure.
It wasn’t a pretty win, but it was a really good one. Given how the game itself went on top of their recent struggles and even looking forward to what’s coming up post-All-Star Break, they simply could not lose this game. Seeing them overcome their struggles just enough to get this win, maybe it matters beyond tonight, though given the roster shortcomings (and the general defensive struggles), maybe it simply can’t matter beyond tonight.
Whether this does mean anything beyond otnight will be answered fairly quickly as the Pacers wrap up the First Half of their schedule tomorrow night when they host the Denver Nuggets and MVP candidate Nikola Jokic.