The Indiana Pacers needed to win Friday night's game against the Chicago Bulls with the kind of desperation rarely seen in a 50-18 team. Yes, Chicago is a bitter division rival, but the need went deeper than that.
The Pacers came into the contest with considerable baggage, having not beaten a team over .500 since an overtime win over the similarly struggling Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 7. Indiana had kept its hold on the No. 1 overall seed thanks to a string of underwhelming wins over the league's bottom feeders, coupled with the struggles of the No. 2 seed Miami Heat.
But the Pacers needed this game against Chicago to prove to the NBA that they are still a team to be feared.
While the Pacers might not have totally accomplished that mission on Friday, they definitely took a step in the right direction, running away from Chicago in the third quarter and holding on for the 91-79 victory. It wasn't always pretty, but then again, when is a Pacers-Bulls matchup ever appealing to the eye?
By holding the Bulls below 80 points, Indiana got back to its stifling defense, per the Pacers' official Twitter account:
It should be noted, however, that Chicago ranks dead last in the league in points per game.
The stat watchers will also be drawn to the final line of star forward Paul George, who recorded his second career triple-double with 10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. But this was a total team effort, as the star-laden Pacers needed to rely on their depth to vanquish the Bulls.
An Un-Pacer-Like First Half
The rhythm of the first half of Friday's game differed noticeably from the Pacers' early-season wins. In the beginning of the year, Indiana developed a habit of racing out to big leads as their starting five of George, Lance Stephenson, Roy Hibbert, David West and George Hill overwhelmed every other lineup in the league. But the Pacers' weak bench often let the other team back into the game, before the starters returned in the third quarter to put the game on ice.
But the starters—especially All-Stars George and Hibbert—have struggled of late, and they continued to do so in the first quarter on Friday. The Pacers shot 33.3 percent from the field in the game's first 12 minutes. Worse yet, they turned the ball over five times, and the Bulls converted those turnovers into eight points.
Chicago did not play particularly well either, but ended the quarter with a four-point lead thanks to the Pacers' mistakes.
The tenor of the game changed completely in the second quarter, thanks to the bench. Usually coach Frank Vogel likes to keep at least one starter in with the second unit; a sign that the reserves haven't quite gained his trust. But on this night Vogel relied on a five-man unit of reserves Donald Sloan, Evan Turner, Chris Copeland, Luis Scola and Ian Mahinmi for big minutes in the second quarter, and the group rewarded him by scoring 23 of the Pacers' 25 points in the quarter.
In particular, Scola (12 points) and Copeland (five points) helped power Indiana in the quarter. Copeland had found himself buried on the bench early in the season, but has steadily earned more playing time of late. Scola, the team's most valuable second-unit scorer, had struggled with his shot recently, shooting just 3-of-12 over his last three games. He doubled that number of made field goals in the second, shooting 6-of-9 from the field.
Vogel played Scola all but 15 seconds in the quarter, as the Pacers turned a four-point deficit into a one-point halftime lead. He couldn't afford to take the big man out of the game, per the Pacers' official Twitter account:
Pacers on the Break
The starters returned to blow the game open in the third quarter, starting the frame with a dominating 19-0 run.
Facing the Bulls' vaunted defense, the Pacers utilized an interesting strategy: They ran. Indiana does not usually play at a high pace, ranking 17th in the league in possessions per game, but they pushed the tempo in that third quarter.
Stephenson led the way, scoring 13 points in the period on 6-of-8 shooting, several of those buckets coming on fast-break layups.
George, meanwhile, could not get it going offensively. With his shot not falling, he played the role of distributor, dishing six of his team-high 10 assists in that third quarter.
He would never find his shooting touch, finishing just 3-of-13 from the field, 1-of-5 from beyond the arc. It says something that the team's leading scorer acquired the rebound and assist portion of his triple-double long before he finally scored that 10th point on a free throw with 1:36 left in the fourth.
In light of those struggles, Stephenson and the Pacers were wise to get out in transition, since George could not hit shots in half-court set. And George showed maturity by relying on his teammates and not forcing the issue, as he explained to the reporters after the game, via Pacers' Twitter:
Where Do They Go From Here?
Even though George showed off in Friday's victory the myriad ways he can help his team, it is still troubling to see him struggling to score. The Pacers are not a team that gets easy buckets, as demonstrated by their 21st ranking in offensive efficiency. They need the George of the first few months of the season, when he was one of the league's best offensive players.
If George wants to reclaim that status, he is going to have to adjust, as the league is already adjusting to him, per Dime Magazine's Matthew Hochberg:
Paul George is no secret anymore. Opponents throw their most physical and best defenders at him on a nightly basis, focusing their gameplans around stopping him. In the December 18 matchup against the Heat, George led his team with 25 points, shooting 8-of-16 from the field. Yet George’s success came when LeBron James was not guarding him. He scored 19 points on 5-of-7 shooting with any defender but James on him, while the league’s four-time MVP held George to six points on 3-of-7 shooting when defending him.
If George cannot adjust to the added attention from defenses, if his slump continues, then it will take the entire team to lift Indiana back to the heights they achieved in the first half of the season.
The good news from Friday's win is that the team as a whole seems willing to step up its game. It might take contributions from unusual suspects, like Chris Copeland. It might take a concerted scoring effort from the likes of Luis Scola and Lance Stephenson.
But the Pacers are a tough, well-coached group. They demonstrated on Friday night that they can find a way.
*All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.