This was a game without a blaring storyline. Paul George didn’t score 43 points, as he did on Sunday, or even 35, as he did on Tuesday. Lance Stephenson didn’t make his second Pacers’ debut, as he did on Sunday, or even his homecourt debut, as he did on Tuesday. Nobody was individually sensational, and there were no obvious turning points or key plays in the game.
So, that’s the storyline. The Pacers’ 104-89 win over Milwaukee at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Thursday was the kind on which a team can subsist for stretches of the schedule. It was solid, balanced, inclusive, energetic and devoid of high drama or dumb luck.
Six players scored in double figures led by George’s 23 points. They’re 17-5 when that many players get to 10 or more. They held Milwaukee, which had defeated them by double-figure margins in all three previous games this season, to 15 points below its average. They are 21-5 when keeping opponents under 100. They also forced 21 turnovers, 19 in the final three quarters, and scored 29 points off them.
The result of it all was that they won a second consecutive game for the first time since Feb. 6, when they defeated Oklahoma City at The Fieldhouse, and maintained their tenuous footing in the sprint to the wire in the Eastern Conference. Five teams are within two games of one another, and the Pacers might have to win each of their final three to make the playoffs.
“We’ve proven we can beat anybody or we can lose to anybody,” C.J. Miles said. “If we go out there and play the way we’ve been playing, we should be OK. We’ve been sharing the ball, we’re being tough, we’re winning loose balls, we’ve been doing everything you need to do to be a playoff team.”
George only had to play an “average” game to get this win. His 23 points are two-tenths of a point below his season average, but he was an efficient 9-of-14 from the field, grabbed 10 rebounds and had four steals — more than enough to offset his four turnovers.
“As much as I enjoy being amazing,” he said jokingly, playing into the question asked of him, “I’ll take a couple of nights (like this). Now we need everybody going down the stretch. It’s not just me going and trying to save the team night after night. It’s good to have a balanced effort across the board.”
That balanced effort included 15 points and seven assists from Jeff Teague, 12 points and 11 rebounds from Thad Young, 11 points and seven rebounds from Kevin Seraphin, and 10 points from Myles Turner and Aaron Brooks. Monta Ellis finished with eight points and a season-high five steals. Stephenson and Miles were significant contributors as well, making for a clean sweep of the rotation members.
Seraphin had his fifth double-figure scoring game of the season, his first since the loss to San Antonio on Feb. 13. He was the first “big” off the bench to provide a better matchup for the second unit against Bucks backup center Greg Monroe, who had averaged 17 points against the Pacers this season. Monroe settled for four points and committed four turnovers.
Brooks, who’s struggled more than he’s excelled this season, appears to have found a niche as a backcourt partner of Stephenson’s. He hit both of his 3-point shots, the first of which came off an assist by Stephenson, and played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter. He’s hit 11 of his last 18 3-pointers, and has scored in double figures in five of the last eight games.
“Having the versatility to move those guys from point to wing is pretty good,” McMillan said. “With Lance handling the ball, Aaron Brooks can shoot the three. I thought Aaron did a real solid job defensively.”
Stephenson likes playing with Brooks, because he can run the offense and Brooks can spot up on the perimeter. It brings back fond memories.
“I always do good with a guard that likes to be off the ball,” Stephenson said. “G. Hill (former Pacers teammate George) was the same way. He really wanted to be a two, but he had to play the one. I would take the ball and he would spot up. It’s the same thing.”
Stephenson wasn’t as electrifying as he had been in Tuesday’s win over Toronto, but still made his presence felt. He played solid defense, picked up the pace of the offense and picked up the pulse of his teammates and fans in his 23 minutes.
“He’s energy, man, he’s energy,” Miles said. “He’s playing with pace, he obviously gets the crowd into it, he plays hard, he passes the ball, he’s making threes. He makes plays, that’s the biggest thing. He’s a basketball player. He can be extravagant sometimes, but that’s him. I don’t think he gets so far away he’s going to throw the game away, but he’s going to push it to the limit. Which is also fun.
“That spark has been amazing.”
Stephenson look like he’s a more confident player than when he last played for the Pacers three years ago. That’s seems illogical, given his failure to stick with five teams in those three seasons, but George brought it up and Stephenson agrees.
He’s back home, in his mind, and has regained a comfort zone.
“It’s teams believing in me, letting me be myself,” he said. “I’m not going to make too many mistakes. When you have the team believing in you, the organization believing in you, the game comes easy. You can see that all of a sudden I’m playing better.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment. I’m really taking advantage of it. Now that I’m getting a shot, I’m trying to…show everyone that I didn’t lose nothing.”
The Pacers’ balance is even more vital given Turner’s injury. He’s playing with an injured index finger on his shooting hand. The knuckle is clearly swollen, and he has a limited range of motion. He said the injury occurred in a game at Milwaukee on March 10, and the stats reveal the impact. He averaged 15.1 points on 52 percent shooting until then, and has averaged 11.1 points on 45 percent shooting since then.
He made up for it by driving hard to the basket. He scored the Pacers’ first six points on attacking layups, the first two on free throws after drawing a foul on a strong take, and then on consecutive drives. He also scored on an emphatic dunk off a drive from 15 feet in the second quarter.
“My finger’s still bothering me a little bit and my shot’s been off,” he said. “I had a mismatch and I just took advantage of it. It came easy for me.
“(The injury) is affecting my shot. Shooting is a big part of my game, so I have to find other areas to help us win.”
The Pacers now have to find ways to win two road games, at Orlando on Saturday and at Philadelphia on Monday. Both of those opponents are losing teams with no hope of making the playoffs, but the Pacers have lost plenty of games to such teams this season. They’re also just 11-28 on the road.
They’re merely 0-1 on the road with Stephenson, however, that being Sunday’s double-overtime loss at Cleveland, one day after he joined the team. He had no idea of the team’s road blues previous to his arrival.
“I didn’t even know,” he said. “All right, so we have to go even harder on the road. Now I know. Thanks for telling me.”
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