The Indiana Pacers typically win thanks to their spectacular, historically excellent defense, but they found themselves embroiled in a shootout with the NBA's best offense on Friday night. And they still emerged with a 118-113 overtime victory.
That's a storyline you don't typically hear, especially since Lance Stephenson was out nursing a back injury that he suffered while making a circus shot against the Atlanta Hawks. If the Pacers were going to win this interconference clash with the Portland Trail Blazers, it was going to be through their suffocating defense.
Except it wasn't. That's not what happened at all.
Now typically, the Pacers defense gets even better when the team is going to emerge with a victory:
|Winning with Defense|
|Points Scored||Points Allowed|
Indiana scores 5.7 more points during wins, but they allow 19.8 fewer points. The latter is the bigger difference, especially because 99.6 points per game—the average if we just wiped the losses out of the record books—would still leave the Pacers with the No. 18 offense in the NBA, per Basketball-Reference.
Defense is what wins games for the yellow-and-blue-clad squad, and they're hoping it's what wins titles as well.
However, champions are usually versatile. They have an identity, but they also have the ability to show some flex and beat a stellar opponent at its own game.
"We're not interested in guys, generally, who are great offensive players who can't guard or great defenders who can't score," Indiana head coach Frank Vogel told USA Today's Ray Glier a day before the big game. "This is what this team is full of, two-way guys."
On Friday night, that's exactly what the Stephenson-less Pacers proved they were.
And let's not overlook the strength of this opponent.
Basketball-Reference shows that Portland entered the game scoring 112.5 points per 100 possessions, which is well clear of the rest of the NBA. The Miami Heat are No. 2 in offensive rating, and they're scoring 1.2 fewer points over the same span.
This is not an easy team to go shot-for-shot with, yet that's exactly what the Pacers did down the stretch.
Indiana entered the fourth quarter down by six points, and it was able to force overtime thanks to a 32-point explosion. Yes, that would be considered an explosion for a team that ranks just 19th in offensive rating and typically has a tougher time working from comeback situations against potent offenses.
Amazingly enough, it did so in typical Indiana fashion.
It was all about scoring off Portland turnovers, getting to the free-throw line and converting second-chance opportunities. During the fourth quarter—which wouldn't end up being the final period—Indiana shot only 9-of-21 from the field, but it scored seven points off turnovers, took 12 shots from the charity stripe and grabbed seven offensive boards.
To put that last number in perspective, the Heat average 7.3 offensive rebounds per game.
Just as was the case throughout the entire night, George Hill and David West were the offensive heroes. The former scored nine points on 3-of-5 shooting from the field during the fourth, and the latter recorded a 10-spot on only five shots.
Although this is a slight tangent from the shootout-down-the-stretch topic, it's worth noting that Hill enjoyed a career night. The 37 points he scored were the most of his professional basketball life, and he also added nine rebounds, eight assists, two steals and a block.
Back on topic, though, when was the last time you saw a stretch like this from the Pacers?
Indiana was down four points with five minutes remaining in the contest, then the team just exploded. What you can't see from that play-by-play sequence is that the first Hill make was the result of an offensive rebound, and that type of hustle was consistent throughout the crucial stretch.
The Pacers weren't getting the job done defensively, but the offense was up to the task.
In just over three minutes, a four-point deficit turned into a lead, though Wesley Matthews—who was en fuego during the fourth—quickly changed that.
The sequence that led to Hill's game-tying triple with eight seconds left was just vintage Pacers.
Indiana capitalized on its final offensive rebound of the quarter, then it prepared for overtime, which would just feature more of the same.
The Pacers finished the final period with a 15-10 advantage, stemming from four points off turnovers and another pair of boards on the offensive end.
Robin Lopez's mistake created the first, as Paul George ripped away a lazy pass right under the basket. Though the Indiana superstar would miss the ensuing three-point attempt—par for the course on a subpar night—he'd grab the offensive rebound and eventually capitalize with an uncontested dunk.
Two buckets later, the Pacers were back to forcing turnovers and making them count:
There's that hard-nosed defense that we've come to expect from Indiana, although the team benefited from LaMarcus Aldridge committing the cardinal sin of throwing the ball beneath his own basket. That gave Indiana a four-point advantage, and the game was sealed on yet another offensive rebound turning into points.
It's easy to look at the score and think that the Pacers won a normal shootout. They did get tangled up in a point-fest with the league's best offense, but they still managed to dictate the style of play.
The Pacers won a shootout. That's impressive.
They won a shootout against the league's best offense. That's even more impressive.
They won a shootout against the league's best offense without Stephenson in the lineup. That's even more impressive still.
They won a shootout against the league's best offense without Stephenson in the lineup, all while playing Pacers basketball. That's most impressive.
Indiana's terrifying defense is already enough to leave most teams quaking in their boots when they see Vogel's squad looming on the schedule. But that defense isn't going to be able to lock down every single opponent each night of the season.
Even if this was only one game, it was enough to show that the Pacers have the versatility a team competing for a championship needs.