Hendricks County Flyer
— For the past six weeks, no one has known what to make of the Indiana Pacers, but Sunday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, all was right with the world.
In front of a playoff-ready crowd, the Pacers notched at 102-97 win over Oklahoma City, a 58-win team with a two-headed attack of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook that’s very similar to Miami’s LeBron/D-Wade version.
“It’s a team that’s an elite opponent that’s been in the top two spots in the West all year, and I just thought we did a good job of protecting home court,” said Pacer David West, who had 21 points on a sterling 9 of 11 from the field.
The Pacers had six players score in double figures, including 20 from backup C.J. Watson, who drained four 3-pointers while sparking more talk that he, not George Hill, should run the point full-time.
Watson missed 18 games during the Pacers’ slide, as the team went 7-11 in his absence due to elbow and hamstring injuries. He had both areas heavily iced as he sat in the locker room following his performance on Sunday, and while not ready for starters’ minutes, his postseason value can’t be denied.
“We don’t win this game without C.J. doing what he did,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “He was just spectacular, and you could see how much he means to our team.”
While multiple Pacers shined, Lance Stephenson played at the All-Star level that makes him a must-keep in the offseason. Stephenson recorded his new team-record fifth triple-double of the year, with 17 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds.
Stephenson achieved the perfect balance of focus and fire that has made him the organization’s top emotional-catalyst/fan-favorite combo since Reggie Miller retired nine years ago.
“When we play loose and don’t worry about turnovers and just play ball, I feel like it’s an easier game for us,” Stephenson said.
With no points on 0 of 9 shooting, Roy Hibbert’s inexplicable struggles continued, and while Paul George finished with 20 points, it was far from his best day. Still, the Pacers showed they can win big games when multiple big names play poorly, something perhaps only San Antonio can do at the same level.
With Miami’s white-flag loss on Monday, the Pacers grabbed the coveted top seed in the East. The team is 35-6 at home, 20-20 on the road, so there’s no understating the importance, even though Vogel did so as a mind tactic during his team’s recent difficulties.
Outside of the brawl-destroyed 2004-05 season, this has been the most bizarre campaign in Pacers history. The 16-1 start, 10-loss March and everything in between has been a grind for both player and fan. An Eastern Conference Finals rematch with Miami has been discussed since the last one ended on June 3, 2013, and the Pacers lost their way in the second half of the season, likely due to boredom and coping with widespread national notoriety for the first time.
With the playoffs starting in a matter of days, we’ll see if the Pacers have turned that proverbial switch to “ON.” Anything less than a trip to the NBA Finals will be a major disappointment, one that the populous won’t recover from until the Colts open on Sept. 7.
Legends are made in the postseason. It’s now up to the Pacers to decide how they’ll be remembered.
Brent Glasgow is a sports writer for the Hendricks County Flyer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 272-5800 ext. 190. Follow him on Twitter @ BGlasgow37.