INDIANAPOLIS – A whirlwind of a week saw the Pacers go from finished to first, then back to finished and then first again.
Games were lost, starters were benched, a game was won and then lost again.
Yet at the end of seven days-in which the Pacers finished with a 2-2 record-remarkably the team’s number one goal since the start of the season remains in tact.
With a 102-97 victory over the Thunder on Sunday evening, the Pacers pushed themselves a half-game past the Heat for the top seed in the East playoffs. So what was a month-and-a-half of complication now becomes simple for the Pacers: Beat the Magic in their series finale at Orlando on Wednesday and the road to the NBA Finals starts in Indiana.
“We’re going to take it as a playoff game,” said guard Lance Stephenson. ” We have to get that number one spot. That’s what we wanted from the beginning of the season so we have to take it.”
That’s sort of what the Pacers did on a rare Sunday afternoon nationally televised game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse-with Stephenson helping the cause with one of his best games of the season. For a fifth time he recorded a triple-double-17 points, 11 assists and ten rebounds-as the Pacers built a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter then held off a late Oklahoma City charge for the win.
David West led the way with 21 points and Paul George had 20, but the bench made their fair share of contributions. C.J. Watson-who has been hampered by injuries the last month-came off the bench to score 20 points while Ian Mahinmi had a season-high 11 and Luis Scola ten.
Collectively they helped outscore the Thunder’s bench 41-25 and made a major difference in a critical win for Indiana.
“I’m just glad we came out with the win,” said Watson. “That’s all that really matters.”
The guard spurred on the Pacers in the first half as he entered last in the opening quarter and put on an offensive show. Watson knocked down a trio of three-pointers and his layup in the final minute of the second quarter gave the Pacers a two-point lead at the half.
He continued his strong shooting early in the fourth quarter and his three-pointer with 9:18 left put the Pacers up by 11. Oklahoma City rallies behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in the final few minutes and the guard brought the game to even at 89 with a three-pointer with 2:46 to play. Indiana then appeared to shut the door again when Stephenson completed a quick 8-2 run to the put the Pacers up by six with 34 seconds to play.
But the Thunder wouldn’t quit and when Durant scored the final three-points of his game-high 38 with a long shot from the win, the Pacers lead was down to 2 with nine seconds left. There would be no collapse in those final moments as Indiana hit their free throws and kept Oklahoma City off the scoreboard at the finish to put themselves once again at the top of the Eastern Conference.
“We’ve been playing better the last week or so even though we’ve had poor performances,” said Vogel. “Our focus is just getting ourselves playing well again.”
Getting a number one seed doesn’t hurt either.