The Indiana Pacers landed in Indianapolis from Boston on Sunday morning somewhere around from 2:30-3:30 a.m. Such is part of the rigors of the schedule of the NBA, and those who set the dates for the games did the Pacers no favors by having them host Utah on Sunday night. But though tip-off took place around 15 hours after they arrived in town, the Pacers (46-13) scratched and clawed their way to a 94-91 victory over Utah (21-38) on Sunday night.
“Our guys showed a lot of mental toughness and overcame in-game adversity,” said Pacers Head Coach Frank Vogel. With foul trouble, with our starting point guard (George Hill) being out, losing two time-outs because guys were hurt, so we didn’t have any time-outs towards the end of the game there. Just a quality win, a mental toughness win.”
On a night in which most of the Pacers struggled to find their jump shot, perhaps the one who jumps least highest was the one who lead the way. Forward David West went 11-17 from the field to finish with 25 points and six rebounds, and provided a solid effort defensively down low with Ian Mahinmi (9 points, 7 rebounds) who played valuable minutes due to the foul trouble of starting center Roy Hibbert. Vogel would call West his “safety-net”, saying that he knows he can count on the veteran to hit a jumper or make a play when the team needs it most, and teammate Paul George agreed.
“He’s the old school, old-game guy,” said George, who finished with 22 points and 6 rebounds in the victory. “He’s our backbone. We go to him every time we feel like our feet is in the mud, and he digs us out. So many times this year he has put us on his back, and we just have to make sure we are behind him every time.”
The Pacers would need every single one of his “old-game guy” baskets, as Utah would prove to be a difficult opponent in the first half. Held scoreless by Paul George in the first quarter, Brownsburg and Butler alum Gordon Hayward would eventually catch fire, and helped the Jazz take a 46-45 lead heading into the second half.
Thanks to the hot-shooting hand of C.J. Watson, who went 5-8 from the field for 13 points and 5 assists while starting in for George Hill, and a combined 21 points from George/West in the third quarter, the Pacers were able to take a 75-70 lead heading into the fourth. Indiana seemed to control the final quarter with a 89-84 lead with 2:00 left in the game, but Utah would fight their way back thanks to a little Gordon Hayward magic.
Down 90-86 with seven seconds left, Hayward (21 points, 3 rebounds) hit a long two to make it a two-point game. Evan Turner (8 points) would hit both of the following free throws, and then with 4 seconds left, Hayward would hit a 27-foot three on the inbounds play to make it a 92-91 ball game. Lance Stephenson was then fouled with about three seconds left, and all of a sudden, a familiar scene to those who watched Hayward during his college days took place on the court.
But instead of opting to miss the second free throw as Duke did against Butler in the national championship game in 2010, Stephenson hit both of them to give Indiana a 94-91 lead with three seconds left. After the ball got deflected out of bounds on the original in bounds pass, Gordon Hayward was found in stride heading towards the basket with just enough time for one shot on the clock. Similar to his missed half-court shot in the classic championship game, Hayward took the opportunity to be the hero, this time being able to set-up his shot right outside the three point line. And just like that game, Hayward’s shot just barely missed, and Indiana was able to hold on for the victory.
“I just think as a group we fought hard enough,” said David West. “We made enough plays, got some baskets to go late in spot-moments to keep us in the hunt, and ultimately we were able to make enough plays to win.”
Indiana returns to action on Tuesday night when they host the high-scoring offense of the Golden State Warriors at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.