Seven days earlier, they were riding a four-game losing streak that had dropped them three games below .500 and stumbling along outside of the eight-team playoff race.
Today, they’re riding a four-game winning streak that has propelled them back into the race, to the point they will participate as a No. 7 seed if they defeat Atlanta on Wednesday. A Hawks loss at Charlotte Tuesday evening could leave the door open for the Pacers to grab the No. 6 seed, but they weren’t planning to watch that game when practice ended Tuesday afternoon.
“I’m only worried about our game,” Paul George said. “I’m not going to watch any games, just prepare for our game.”
The Pacers’ mindset is to keep everything simple and just win out — an appropriate approach for a team playing its best basketball of the season. They have defeated Toronto, Milwaukee, Orlando and Philadelphia by an average of 14.25 points. The only game in that stretch they didn’t win by a double-figure margin was Monday’s nine-point victory in Philadelphia, which they led by 21 points in the first quarter.
They own the longest winning streak in the Eastern Conference and, by beating Atlanta, can finish with the franchise’s longest season-ending win streak since 2002, when Isiah Thomas’ team won its last five games to finish 42-40 and make the playoffs. Larry Bird’s last team also closed with five consecutive victories in 2000. The only Pacers team to win more than five games at the end of the season was Larry Brown’s first, which won its final eight games and went on to sweep Orlando in the first round and reach the Eastern Conference Finals in 1994.
The spark of Lance Stephenson’s game and personality obviously reignited the fading embers of this team, a fact his teammates freely admit. But there’s more to it than that.
George has been in playoff mode for more than a month, averaging 28.6 points on 51 percent shooting over the past 20 games. Thaddeus Young’s sprained left wrist has healed, and he’s averaged 15.3 points on 58 percent shooting and 8.5 rebounds over his past eight games. The training staff, with help from physical therapist Dan Dyrek, found a solution to the injury to the index finger on Myles Turner’s hand, and he’s averaged 20.5 points on 76 percent shooting and 11.5 rebounds in the past two games.
The improved play of those three has made life easier for point guard Jeff Teague, who has averaged eight assists and just 1.8 turnovers during the winning streak, along with 14.8 points.
All that doesn’t even speak to what might be the biggest reason for the turnaround: defense. The Pacers have improved at that end, and by forcing more missed shots they have been getting more and better shots on offense.
All in all, it’s a team that appears to be peaking not a minute too soon, but not too late.
“We’re ready,” George said. “We’re ready to come out and do what it takes to get this win. It seems we’re figuring it out, what level we need to play at on a consistent basis. It would be a shame to throw it all away if we don’t get this win tomorrow.”
The only potential health issue facing the Pacers now — aside from the calf strain that could keep Glenn Robinson III out of the postseason, should the Pacers make it — is Stephenson’s sprained left ankle. He suffered a Grade 2 sprain in a game with Minnesota on Feb. 14, and was released a few days later. Grade 2 sprains usually entail a partial tear and require at least three or four weeks of rehab. Stephenson, though, joined the Pacers for their game at Cleveland on April 2 and has played in every game since.
“We have a great training staff for me to be able to play like this,” he said. “Right now, I’m not 100 percent but you would never know by how hard the trainers have worked. If I could just rest, it would be OK, but playing in heavy competition, it’s tough for it to be 100 percent.”
He hasn’t considered rest, however.
“I’m from New York, we play through all injuries,” he said. “Especially at this critical moment of the season. We all need each other. I would never sit out.”
His injury, and estrangement from the NBA much of this season, makes everything Stephenson is experiencing now feel like a dream. While he has obviously lifted the Pacers to higher ground, playing well at both ends and creating opportunities for his teammates with his playmaking (see: Kevin Seraphin), he isn’t about to complain about his role or minutes.
He knows all too well what it’s like not to be playing at all.
“I was laying in the bed, so I’m just happy to be back and be on a playoff-contending team,” he said. “I was sitting on the couch playing 2K (an NBA video game) with my friends and rehabbing my ankle. To be on a playoff team and getting a consistent 18-20 minutes, I’m blessed.”
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