Once the final buzzer had sounded off on Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Pacers forward Jeff Pendergraph saw one of his teammates making a straight beeline to jump on top of him. What he didn’t realize, before the player had reached him, that it just happened to be one of his very big teammates.
“Heck no I didn’t expect that,” said Pendergraph with a smile.
“I thought that might have been (Orlando Johnson) or somebody, or somebody a little smaller. But the next thing you know I hear (Hibbert), and I knew I had to fall before I lose my legs or something and come out hurt at the end of the game. But it was cool, I had never seen him move that fast either. He moved from the bench on the other side of the court pretty quick.”
The Pacers (49-29) were full of glee and emotion following a 99-94 victory over Cleveland (24-53), a game that saw Indiana down 20 points as late as 9:40 remaining in the fourth quarter before the team blitzed back to steal the victory.
“We weren’t playing well and we know the level that we should be playing,” said Pacers All-Star Paul George, who finished with 14 points and 7 rebounds.
“We didn’t come out and play at that level, and the game got away from us in the late second and the whole third. At that point, again we just didn’t want three losses in a row where we were down 20 points. Everybody literally looked each other in the eyes and said ‘let’s come back, let’s do it’.”
Cleveland jumped out to a fast start thanks to the stellar play of point guard Kyrie Irving, with the 21 year-old point guard slicing up the Pacers defense for 29 points total and 7 assists. The Cavaliers took their largest lead of the game at the 11:11 mark when Omri Casspi hit a jump-shot to put Cleveland 84-64, and then a Tyler Hansbrough jumper at the 9:38 mark sparked the furious comeback by the Pacers as far as play on the court goes.
Quite possibly what gave the rally it’s first boost of momentum came late in the third quarter, when Indiana Head Coach Frank Vogel tried taking the game in his own hands and got tossed out.
“We’ve been in several situations this year where we have been up twenty with a lot of time left on the clock,” said Vogel.
“When we’ve struggled to hold leads, is when coaches change the game. They either empty their bench and put five fresh players in, or they play zone, they start picking up full-court, or they play small line-ups. You have to change the game. When you change the game, sometimes it doesn’t work, but sometimes it changes the momentum. So we went with our bench by taking all of the starters out at the end of the third, and I overreacted to some calls.”
The Pacers received the message from their head coach and started to chip at the Cavaliers lead as quick as they could, reaching within striking distance with less than a minute on the clock. That’s when David West and George Hill trapped Kyrie Irving at the top of the key, forcing an errant pass that ended up in the hands of Lance Stephenson, who found George Hill up the court for a lay-up and one that put Indiana up 93-92.
Irving got fouled on the following possession, putting the Cavaliers up 94-93 with :37 left on the clock, but a drawn up play out of a time-out that saw a pick-and-roll between George Hill and David West left Paul George wide-open in the corner for a three, who knocked it down to put Indiana up 96-94.
“There was thirty-something seconds left on the clock,” said Hill.
“The thing is that we wanted to do a two-for-one, because I think there was 46 seconds or so (:37 on the clock). We wanted to do a quick shot, and the thing was for me to fake right and go left for a quick layup. But I saw Paul’s guy in the paint, and I know he is a great shooter even if the past couple games it hasn’t been falling. I still believe that every shot he shoots is going to go in, and I threw it out there and he did what a good player is supposed to do.”
George hit the big shot, but the following play may have been what saved everything for Indiana. On the next Cleveland possession, Irving stormed down the lane with :16 left on the clock as he went up for a layup, but Jeff Pendergraph slid in front of Irving and took a charge with his feet just outside of the inner-circle. The next possession he was fouled on the in bounds pass, ultimately putting Indiana up 97-94 with his lone point on a free throw in eight minutes of play.
‘If there was a game-ball, it definitely goes to Pendergraph,” said George. “That is just guts to step up and be in position to take a charge on a tough guard. It is hard to slide and get in front of him and get that call. I hit a big three, but what he did is the reason that we won tonight.”
George would later add two free throws, and the Pacers closed out the victory by the final off 99-94.
“At least it catches us hopefully,” said Vogel on if this game will turn the Pacers recent funk around. “We recognize that we aren’t playing very well right now. So it’s good to learn lessons and sort of get a wake-up call and still get a win.”