Darren Collison discusses what has made the Pacers so successful during their five-game winning streak and over the past couple seasons.
Jim Ayello, email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana Pacers coach Nate McMillan wasn’t expecting the worst Saturday night, but to be fair, he’d seen the worst before, so he was prepared for it.
It was just two months ago that his Pacers were riding high — winners of seven straight — and ready to dispatch a woeful Cleveland Cavaliers team to make it eight in a row. Instead his team came out flat, low intensity and little focus as, they dropped a stunner, 92-91, on their own home court.
McMillan took his team to task after that one, explaining in the post-game press conference that there are no gimmie wins in the NBA and the Pacers must respect every opponent.
“I believe there are basketball gods,” McMillan said in December, “and if you don’t play this game the right way, it will bite you.”
McMillan admitted after Saturday’s game that before tip-off, he was prepared for something similar with the 11-win Cavs coming to town once again.
“Playing against a team like Cleveland, who hasn’t had success and coming off of two good wins, you kind of anticipate a letdown.”
But it wasn’t so. The Pacers, it seemed had learned their lesson. They’ve matured.
During Saturday’s game, the Pacers had no problem with intensity, no issue finding energy in front of a sellout Bankers Life Fieldhouse crowd. They came out, guns blazing and never looked back.
Myles Turner (14 points, eight rebounds, three blocks) threw down a ferocious slam to give the Pacers an early 4-2 lead, and they never conceded it, leading the rest of the way en route to a 105-90 throttling of the Cavaliers.
That, McMillan said, is growth. No letdowns. No stupid mistakes that allow a bad team claw back in the game. The Pacers (37-19) controlled the game from the first whistle, out-rebounding, out-shooting and out-hustling the Cavs en route to their fifth straight victory.
“It’s a sign of growth that we came out here and played the game the right way,” a pleased McMillan said after Saturday’s win. “You’re not playing a team’s record. You show respect to your opponent, and we came out here and took care of business right from the start.”
Myles Turner got the Pacers off on the right foot in the first quarter throwing down a massive dunk before burying back-to-back 3-pointers and staking Indiana to a 10-5 lead.
Bojan Bogdanovic (23 points), the game’s leading scorer, joined in the fun with a dunk and a 3 of his own, as the Pacers cruised to a 30-17 lead in the first quarter.
While Indiana wasn’t quite as efficient from behind the arc as it has been in recent games, it managed to knock down 9-of-26 (34.6 percent) and still finished with an impressive 31 assists. The Pacers out-rebounded Cleveland 43-30 and outscored the Cavs 54-32 in the paint.
“In the position we’re at right now, we can’t lose games or drop games to any team,” Collison said. “Our backs are against the wall right now. We don’t have our all-star so we have to play as scrappy as any team in this league. And for us to let our guards down, we’d be doing ourselves a disservice.”
Cory Joseph emerged as the unsung hero of Saturday night’s performance. Along with usual contributions on the defensive end, Joseph became the latest Paces to come painstakingly closes to his first career triple double. Joseph egistered 10 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds in 31 minutes off the bench.
“My teammates were being generous enough to let me try and get it (the last few rebounds), but they weren’t missing,” Joseph said with a smile. “It happens.”
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Domantas Sabonis notched double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds, while Darren Collison contributed 18 points and nine assists and committed zero turnovers.
Jordan Clarkson led Cleveland with 18 points.
>> For an instant, all the good vibes inside the fieldhouse were sucked out. Pacers big man and burgeoning star Myles Turner put a scare into everyone when he landed awkwardly after blocking a Marquese Chriss dunk midway through the third quarter.
“Oh God, not again,” Collison thought, wondering if the Pacers were about to lose yet another integral part of their team. “We really don’t that.”
Upon landing, Turner immediately grabbed his knee and winced in pain. He never went to the ground, but once play stopped, Pacers trainers rushed out to attend to him. He told them he “twisted it” but that he could walk off under his own power.
He retreated to the Pacers locker room but was back on the court a few minutes later, playing with what the team characterized as a “sore right knee.”
“My knee is good man,” Turner said after the game. “It just scared me more than anything. It just buckled and when I first got up, it didn’t feel right. But I walked it off, went to the back and (trainers) checked it out and it looks like I’m all good. So I’m good.”
>> The Pacers defense continues to stack impressive performances. Saturday’s game was the fourth time in five tries Indiana has kept its opponent under 100 points.
While holding the worst scoring offense in the league to under 100 points might not seem significant, Indiana hadn’t been able to accomplish the feat in two of the first three games against them. The Cavaliers entered Saturday averaging 105 points — better than their season average of 102.5.
What’s more, unlike in recent games Saturday’s performance didn’t contain the flash of a half-dozen Turner blocks or double-digit steals. Instead, the Pacers simply played staunch defense — the guards keeping their man in front and the big men protecting the paint and altering shots.
“I know that I get to play more aggressive against my man,” Joseph said, “because I know I have the Great Wall of China (Turner) back there, and he’s going to block anything that comes his way.”
The Pacers rotated well, McMillan said, rarely blowing an assignment, and despite only finishing with eight steals and 12 forced turnovers, they turned in yet another stellar defensive performance.
>> TJ Leaf didn’t get a lot of run Saturday, but he made the most of the time he got. Leaf finished the game 4-of-4 from the field with eight points in just eight minutes.
He did most of his work in the second quarter and near the basket.
The Pacers’ 2017 first round pick used size to his advantage in scoring six points in a little more than a minute, starting with a 7-foot bank shot over a smaller defender. On the next possession, he drove past his man on the wing and connected on a running hook.
Leaf capped the run with a two-handed slam after Joseph found him wide open underneath the basket. His efficiency from close range should serve him well in the future as opponents will have to respect his ability to score near the basket as well as from the perimeter.
Follow IndyStar Sports reporter Jim Ayello on Twitter and Facebook: @jimayello.