Up by three after three (75-72), the Pacers once again looked like they were going to fall apart in the final quarter on Saturday night against the Bucks. For regular viewers, this wasn’t surprising. It has happened so many time this year that it essentially became an expected, running gag to punctuate every game. It was like the “Oh my God — they killed Kenny. You bastards” moment you knew was coming.
Let’s not get it confused. This isn’t why they lost so many games in December and January. It wasn’t like they were a very good team that just turned into a pumpkin late. There were plenty of games were they were outplayed throughout and somehow hung around only to revert to also-ran, steamroller-fodder when the other team started paying attention enough to properly execute late.
Regardless, this team has blown a lot of fourth quarter leads this year.
And on Saturday night, they missed 7 of their first 7 shots in the final period. So when Milwaukee forward/best-name-in-the-NBA-haver Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hit two free throws to put the Bucks up by 1 just three minutes into the final period, a “here we go again” vibe” surfaced.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to an expected collapse: Indiana went on a 14-0 run and ended up running away with a game vs. the team everyone expected to come in second in the Central Division. The final score (103-97) doesn’t illustrate how throat-stomping the Pacers run was. They missed a bunch of free throws in desperation-foul time while Milwaukee hit a bunch of three-point heaves. But they were up by 14 with less than two minutes to play and the game was already a wrap.
Danny Granger lead the charge with 9 points during the Pacers’ go-ahead 16-2 run, including two long, dagger treys that began the back-breaking process. (He scored 30 on 15 shots for the game.) When Granger pulls up and lets it fly with the type of confidence he had at that point in the game, it’s like he is a different player. His stance is more balanced. His motion is more fluid. Everything is in rhythm. And his demeanor is red-lining on arrogance — in a good way.
After making his second three during the run — a shot that poetically followed nice makes by the team’s other two most important players, Roy Hibbert and Darren Collison — Granger was beating his chest while jumping around and nodding his head like he was auditioning for a remake of the Woo Hah video.
The only other thing I feel the need to express here is how impressed I am with Paul George. Since he played the final 16 minutes of the game, it would seem that Coach Frank Vogel feels the same way.
George only shot 2-for-4 during this extended stretch, but it wasn’t his ability to make shots that was encouraging. It was the little stuff. It was the stuff that helped show us how much of a complete player he can be.
He tied a career high with 8 free-throw attempts. He only made 4 of them, but who cares. I’m not concerned about his ability to make 15-footers with no one guarding him. But getting to the line is one of the best — and under-discussed — skills to have in this league. Even in limited minutes, George has gotten to the line 8 times in twice in his last 8 games. (He has also had both a 6-FTA game and a 5-FTA game during that stretch.)
The kid also grabbed 5 rebounds in the fourth quarter alone (to give him 7 for the game in 24 minutes). Better still, at least twice after he secured the board, he didn’t just hold it and look for Darren Collison. He freed himself from the traffic and dribbled up the court to get the offense started. This is a small thing, but you can see his growing confidence with the ball. Very few non-PG Pacers players have been all that comfortable bringing up the ball over the past few seasons. Even Granger is awkward about it. Mike Dunleavy, Jr. is really the only guy that did it very often in any way that made you think the offense was going to be initiated properly rather than just making you think the shot clock was going to dwindle down to 14 before a point guard came and got the ball and had to force something immediately.
The two-guard spot has been a weak point for this team since Dunleavy had his career-year in 2007-08. And even then, the back court was weak defensively, lacking anyone who could hope to so much as bother the Dwyane Wades, Kobe Bryants and Manu Ginobilis of the world.
Now, it looks like the Pacers have a guy who can be a high-level two-way player.
By scoring double-digit points in 8 of his past 12 games, Paul George has showed us that he can score. By buckling down and digging in on defense, he has shown us that he has the chops to guard people.
And increasingly, by rebounding, getting to the line and looking like a confident, capable ball-handler, he is showing us that there may be very little on a basketball court he can’t do.