Monday, December 23, 2013

Forget the flash, Stephenson's game has substance, too

The Pacers defeated the host Brooklyn Nets 103-86 Monday night to improve to 23-5 on the season. The Nets fell to 9-18.
The Big Picture
The Pacers grabbed the lead for good in the second quarter and led by six at halftime. Then they had one of their patented third quarters outscoring the Nets 30-19, including building the lead to as much as 24 points. The Nets played with a little spunk and had the ball and a chance to cut it to 13 or 12 early in the fourth quarter, but they missed and that was that.
The Ups
1) Lance Stephenson continued his stretch of good games and this was probably especially big to him as it came in his hometown of Brooklyn where he tied his career high with 26 points. In his last six games Stephenson has shot 45-84, but the main thing is that he has his confidence back and is having fun on the court. And whether it rubs opponents the wrong way or not at times, there's nothing wrong with having some fun when playing a game. One of Stephenson's best plays Monday night though, wasn't one of his spectacular passes, but in the first half when he was leading a 3 on 2 fast break. He stopped at the free-throw line and made the wide open jumper. In past years, maybe even last year, he would at times go straight to the basket and really force the issue when he didn't need to. Here he didn't need too and settled for an easy two points. And also, playing this game in Brooklyn a year ago, he really had to fight himself from being too fired up to play well. But this time, he was calm when he needed to be and spectacular at other times. And just his teammate Roy Hibbert tweeted earlier Monday, you've got to look at Stephenson in the most improved category.
Paul George scored 26 points to help the Pacers
to another easy victory, this one in Brooklyn.
2) When Larry Bird returned as the Pacers president his first move was to sign C.J. Watson as the backup point guard. It may not have seemed like a big deal at that time, but Watson has not only had consistent effort but has played consistently well. He's a natural at knowing when to make the pass on the fast break and he also puts defensive pressure on the other team's point guard, sometimes making it difficult for the other team's reserves to get into their offense. And he's also a threat from 3-point range.
3) Paul George has emerged from a mini slump to return to the form the Pacers need him to be at. It's especially good when the Pacers have a halftime lead of any sort, and then he comes out in the third quarter firing away like he has the last two nights and basically helps put the game away for the Pacers. He finished with 26 points Monday night. Not an off the charts night, just what we've come to expect from George and what he expects from himself, too.
4) Danny Granger had very little, if anything, to do with this victory. It was his first time playing the second night of a back-to-back games and he finished 0-7 from the floor. However, in his first three games back the Pacers have won by an average of 26.7 points per game. Just sayin'.
The Downs
1) The obvious one here was the Nets' Paul Pierce Flagrant 2 foul on a George Hill layup. He didn't even pretend to make a play on the ball and the only reason the officials had to really look at it on the video is because they have to before they can make that call. Just because Pierce is on a bad team now doesn't give him an excuse to make bad plays like that.
2) The only thing I didn't like about the Pacers' part of the game is that with Nets center Brook Lopez out the Pacers didn't take advantage of Roy Hibbert's size early in the game. They did get it inside some to David West, who did his usual yeoman's job and finished with 13 points on 6 of 8 shooting. Hibbert didn't even get his first shot until late in the second quarter and that shouldn't happen in a mismatch game like this.
3) I've had a great deal of respect for the Nets' Kevin Garnett over the years, but he missed so many easy shots Monday night, I'd have to say the Celtics pretty much picked the right time to trade him. He still gives the effort, but after 19 years in the league, the skills start to go. It's an unfortunate fact of basketball life.
The Pacers have reached their first clear breaking point in the season with five days off now. They most likely would have signed off for a 23-5 record at just past the one-third mark of the season. The Pacers aren't a perfect team here, but they are certainly the most balanced of the league's elite. The Heat have Lebron, of course, the Thunder have Westbrook and Durant, the Spurs have Duncan and Parker, the Blazers have Lillard and Aldridge and the Clippers have Paul and Griffin, but do offer more balance the others, except for the Pacers. What will be interesting to see is how this plays out later in the season. But based on what has happened so far, the Pacers without question belong in that elite mix.
Next Up
The Pacers have five days off before they play host to the Nets. Normally, it's difficult to win both ends of a back-to-back against the same team. But since there are five days in between games, and since it's the Nets and since Pacers coach Frank Vogel is giving the team a couple of days off here, I'd be stunned if the Pacers didn't come away with another easy win Saturday night.

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