Picking up one of their most surprising wins of the year, the Indiana Pacers got back to basics on the defensive end and closed out the Philadelphia 76ers with a purpose, limiting them to just 32 second half points. It was an impressive turnaround for a Pacers team that looked predictable in the first half, struggling to keep pace offensively while allowing 62 first half points.
The Sixers did a solid job taking away Indiana’s ability to score inside, forcing them to live or die by the three point shot by going under screens. Outside of early triples from Doug McDermott, the Pacers largely floundered, shooting under 35% from three and scoring 18 points in the paint in the half.
The latter didn’t change in the second half, but the shotmaking did, particularly from Caris LeVert. LeVert opened the game with a breakaway dunk off of a steal, then missed his next nine shots. He wasn’t the only player to struggle shooting. Goga Bitadze and Oshae Brissett were a combined 0-10 on the night and Kelan Martin struggled to connect after hitting his first two threes.
The lack of bench production came to light when Philly built their first double figure advantage against an all-bench lineup with Cassius Stanley and JaKarr Sampson playing alongside Martin, Bitadze, and T.J. McConnell. The starting lineup didn’t provide much of a boost, as the 76ers pushed their lead out to 16 late in the half, leading 60-44.
LeVert got to the line after stealing a pass from Ben Simmons, helping Indiana close the half on a 7-2 run that made it an 11-point game at the half. In the third, the Pacers pushed forward, forcing and capitalizing off of Philly misses to open the quarter on a 14-4 run that brought them to within a single point.
Back-to-back threes from Justin Holiday and LeVert gave Indiana their first lead since the opening minutes of the game, eventually falling back into a 75-75 tie heading into the fourth. The bench minutes to open the fourth required a heavy dose of McConnell offense to just keep within reach, eventually falling behind by six with 7:29 remaining.
Bitadze remained on the floor as the starters returned, getting to the line twice, the second time helping to erase a Simmons jumper that had put Philly up 92-88. Bitadze’s free throws kickstarted an 11-0 run that was capped off by a dagger three pointer from LeVert with just under a minute remaining, shaking off what he felt was a foul by Simmons to drill the stepback.
It was an impressive stretch for the Pacers not only on the offensive end, but particularly on the defensive end. The double big lineup of Bitadze and Sabonis paid off in a big way, neutralizing the size of Dwight Howard and Mike Scott. The Sixers missed eight straight shots, including a pair right at the rim, going scoreless for 4:31 and without a field goal for the final 6:13, giving the Pacers a 103-94 win.
Indiana also got a pair of key stops in that stretch, one with Holiday blocking Danny Green in the corner, forcing the ball off of him out of bounds and McConnell flying down the floor to create a steal out of absolutely nothing. Interestingly, neither play resulted in points (the McConnell play actually became a turnover of his own), but it played right into their far more spirited play of late, no doubt aided by a much simpler defensive approach.
Philadelphia’s plan to limit Indiana’s success in the paint worked to the tune of 32 total points in the paint for the Pacers. That took away Sabonis’s effectiveness scoring, but didn’t remove him at all from the offense. Sabonis had 16 points on 7-9 shooting, but also had 15 assists, completing another triple double with 13 rebounds.
LeVert finished the night with 24, going 8-20 from the field, 7-10 after his extensive first half struggles. They were joined by McDermott with 20. McDermott hit four threes on the night. Holiday hit three himself, scoring 16. Off the bench, McConnell’s second half performance provided the Pacers a big boost, scoring 10 with six rebounds.
Though the offensive struggles were there for Bitadze and Brissett specifically, both played very well on the defensive end, particularly Bitadze, who had two blocks in his 18 minutes. In the starting lineup, Brissett had five boards, including a team best three offensive rebounds as Indiana won the rebounding battle 45-35, allowing just five offensive rebounds as a team, one shy of their season best.
Tonight’s win was just Indiana’s second of the year against a team .600 or better. It came at the perfect time for their postseason positioning, both clinching a play-in spot with a Chicago loss and moving them into a tie for 8th with three games remaining. That may prove to be short-lived given Indiana’s next two opponents, but it’s still been their most interesting stretch of basketball of the year, improving them to 3-1 in their last four.