All week ESPN had been running an ad (among ESPN, ESPN 2, ESPNU, all the way down to perhaps The Ocho) that had highlighted Wednesday night’s double-header with the Indiana/Chicago match-up as well as the Oklahoma City/Dallas contest to follow. But there was something that absolutely stood out to anybody that happens to cheer for the blue and gold in Central Indiana. The ad primarily highlighted the likes of Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, despite the fact the Indiana Pacers were the home team, despite the fact that Paul George was an All-Star last year, and despite the fact the Indiana Pacers had competed in the Eastern Conference Finals just than a little less than five months ago.
I often tend to chuckle at not only Pacers’ fans slights about the national media not caring about them, or even times when the players deliberately gripe about the media not paying attention to them when local media is present. But this, this ad that ESPN had been running all week long, that was obviously something that you could chalk up as an absolute overlook. You know what you can’t overlook though? A 97-80 victory on Wednesday night that improved the Pacers to 5-0, dropping Chicago to 1-3 on the short-season and sending Bankers Life Fieldhouse into an absolute frenzy.
Now truthfully, I don’t think the Pacers really get caught up in the overall hoopla of everything. As I mentioned in this spaced before, I have never seen or heard of a team so set-in on a goal to this extreme this early into an 82 game season. The team seem pretty level-headed following Wednesday night’s victory, despite being informed they are the first team in Pacers’ franchise history to start off an NBA season undefeated through the first five games (the last Pacers squad to do this were the ’72 ABA champions), they collectively as a group said they can only take this one game at a time.
“In the NBA, games just come so fast,” said Pacers forward David West.
“I’m just not built to overreact. We just try to stay as even-keel as possible. Not going to try to get too hot or too excited about where we are, we got a long, long journey ahead of us. If we have a bad week next week, this whole thing can change. Just trying to stay steady and just winning games, and our approach to the games have been the right way.”
But you can’t convince me that this one, over a Chicago team they’ve been waiting to get a crack at with a healthy Derrick Rose for a long time now, wasn’t a little bit extra special, not from the emotion that came across their faces after each key-bucket in the fourth. And now, with a game on national television for the world to see, Indiana has shown the world how good they are, even if they already knew it.
“Five and ‘o, that is a good start,” said Pacers Head Coach Frank Vogel. “It is a good start, but how we are playing is even more encouraging. I think we have a championship-level defense, and we’ve got enough offensive pieces to put it together on the offensive end too. It is going to be an exciting year.”
Just starting off the season by winning the first five games of the season would be impressive enough, but having an average margin victory of 11, along with not having allowed more than 91 points, stands out like Larry Bird’s 20-plus foot statue at the Hulman Center at Indiana State.
Of course, the game wasn’t played out as if Indiana had dominated Chicago the entire game. In fact, that turned out to be quite the opposite early on in the contest, when the Pacers (already down starting point guard George Hill who is day-to-day with a sore-hip) found themselves in a bit of a conundrum. The physical style of play that they had trademarked throughout the past few years were not going to pass with the referees on Wednesday night, and by the end of the half Indiana had found themselves with a total of 13 fouls. Throw in a first half performance that perhaps could lead you to think Lance Stephenson was finally coming back down to Earth (0-7 from the field), the highly efficient Paul George and David West combining for 7-20, and Derrick Rose seemingly finding his old-form with 12 points in the first half, the Bulls found themselves with a 43-37 lead after two quarters.
So what turned around in the second half? Well, just as the Pacers have grown accustomed too during this five-game stretch, seemingly everything. First and foremost, it came from the offensive-play from David West, who in the third quarter went 4-5 from the field and scored half of his 16 points while grabbing seven rebounds. Many had questioned when David West was going to have a “break-out” game this season, suggesting that perhaps he wasn’t scoring enough on offense or putting himself in position to do more on that end. This despite the fact that since Paul George’s point-total has risen and that Lance Stephenson’s shot-total has an extra five shots per game, and as it seems, the boost in offense in their game is taking away from West’s offensive input. Is this necessarily a bad thing? Of course not, especially when those two produce, and when you take in account that David West just happens to be one of the most unselfish basketball players that finds ways to impact a game immensely even if the ball isn’t running through him. As Tom Thibodeau said in the Bulls shoot-around earlier in the day, you just can’t understate or overstate just how important West has been to this squad.
But there was West on Wednesday night, taking advantage of the extra-space that Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson were giving him, knocking down those mid-range jumpers that he makes look so easy night after night. All while keeping Joakim Noah on the offensive end down to four points and frustrating the likes of Derrick Rose and anybody that happened to come into the lane by putting a body on them.
“That is kind of how he exhibits his will,” said Vogel. “You know on the defensive end, Roy, Paul, and George Hill, they get a lot of credit for their defensive prowess, but David West probably has the best will on the team. He’s the quarterback of our defense, and when a play needs to be made, he’s got great hands and a great timing, a great feel for the game. He’s a winner and made some big-time plays defensively for us in the second-half.”
The third-quarter also saw Paul George’s strongest quarter, which found himself spotting up for one of those back-breaking threes from the corner to put Indiana up 56-51. These types of three-pointers might be the trademark of Indiana’s short-season, with George being wide-open due to his man cheating to help once Lance Stephenson breaks to the basket, George nailing the three, and then George almost in slow-motion jogging down the court when a timeout is called as Bankers Life Fieldhouse erupts. For a basketball player that is only 23 years-old and on the brink of breaking out into being a potential All-Star starter, it’s the definition of cool, especially for somebody who gets just as excited when a teammate does something that helps the team. Don’t believe me? Check out how high George gets on chest-bump with Lance Stephenson after “Born Ready’s” three put the team up 77-69, or the bicep high-five he gives Roy Hibbert after a nasty block on Taj Gibson early in the fourth.
Indiana’s third-quarter was everything the team needed to get right back in the game, leading 63-62 at the break, and than the fourth-quarter saw an offensive outbreak from Lance Stephenson and Luis Scola that started on the defensive side of the ball. The Pacers just collectively came-together as a group, attacked the ball, and forced Chicago to take uncomfortable shots that in the end weren’t going to be enough to beat them. Indiana forced Chicago to go 0-5 from the paint in the quarter, and once Derrick Rose did get into the game, they double-teamed him George taking the lead on defense, not allowing him to do much of anything except go 0-2 from the field.
“We just pressured them, we just pressured them,” said George. “We knew that game had to be put away. And we really needed to bring some energy. West and Scola did a great-job on the ball handlers in terms of jumping out, pressuring them up, and creating some easy offense for us,” said George.
This allowed #1 and #4 (Scola) to break the game open ultimately. Stephenson went 4-7 from the field, hitting two threes and cruising into two easy baskets off of fast-breaks began by turnovers, ending the night with 15 points despite a horrific first half. As some would say, good players will continue to believe in their hard work and trust that their shots will fall eventually, and that is what happened for Stephenson collectively.
Scola on the other hand, who has continued to be a fantastic addition for the Pacers, went 4-6 from the field thanks to the similar space that Chicago forwards were giving to David West, allowing for jumpers to drop and end his night with 12-points overall. The Pacers outscored Chicago 34-18 in the quarter, and went on to celebrate their biggest victory of the young 2013-14 season.
“If we are having a bad offensive night, or somebody is having a bad offensive night, we tend to score off of defense,” said Stephenson. “Roy Hibbert had five blocked shots, I believe Paul George had three steals, and we just ran off of those.”
All of this fronts a victory which didn’t even emphasize Roy Hibbert’s continued effect on the game around the hoop (10 rebound, five blocked shots, and an seemingly endless amount of forced shots that missed around the basket) or touch on how impressive the Pacers depth is at point guard as C.J. Watson/Donald Sloan combined for 20 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds in place of missing point guard George Hill.
Wrap it all up, and what does it mean for the Pacers? In the short-term, not really anything besides another-win along the way to 77 more games to be decided on the schedule. As David West pointed out, things really could change in the blink of an eye for Indiana.
Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this game, besides Indiana’s ability to compete at such a high-level this early in the season, is actually what it meant off of the court. Just three years ago when the Chicago Bulls played both regular-season and playoff games that packed Bankers Life Fieldhouse with a sea of red, with Derrick Rose getting the loudest ovations during the fan introductions and Bulls fans mobbing the streets after victories. Wednesday night finally had a different feel to it. Sure, there will always be Bulls fans that live in the area due to their past-allegiance to the greatest basketball player ever and the fact that the Windy City is just a few hours away. But Wednesday night’s sellout crowd of 18,165 felt like the city had the back of the team against the fan-base that seeps into Bankers Life Fieldhouse the most.
Now only if those ESPN promo’s will take notice, and everything will be just fine.