INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indiana Pacers 2016-17 season can be divided on a single pinnacle moment: the signing of Lance Stephenson. It has been five games with five impressive showings. Before the Lance signing, the Pacers were floundering toward oblivion. After entering the season with expectations of winning 47-50 games, the Pacers were on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
That was then, this is now: After beating Philly 120-111 on Monday night, these new Pacers have won four straight. Since signing Lance, they’ve outscored their opponents by 52, and that includes the loss to Cleveland.
Those Pre-Lance Pacers spent the better part of two months struggling to beat anyone. Those Pacers had lost 7 of their last 10 games. They were equal opportunity losers falling to the Eastern elites (Toronto twice and Boston) and the cellar-dwellers (New York) alike. You would’ve questioned whether those Pacers could have strung a couple wins against bottom-feeders (like the 76ers and Magic) together like these Pacers just did. Actually, remember how those Pacers had played against Milwaukee?
Spoiler, not well.
Milwaukee had not just beaten Indiana the previous three times this year, the Bucks incinerated them. In November they thumped Indy by 18, followed it up with a 16 point win in February, and then Milwaukee held Indiana to 85 total points during the Bucks’ 14-point triumph in March.
But when these Pacers played the Bucks it was different. The Pacers are just different. They played with fire, they played with passion, they didn’t wilt in the presence of Giannis Antetokounmpo and they won by daylight, 104-89.
For aesthetical purposes, the Pacers are flowing. They play with an edge and a confidence that was absent from the pre-Lance Pacers. The numbers back what the eye is seeing. Those Pacers spent the last five games of their existence scoring 107 ppg and surrendering 111. Not an ideal plan for success. These Pacers are scoring 112.6 while giving up a mere 101.2, including holding the explosive Raptors and Bucks to 90 and 89, respectively.
Over the last five games, these Pacers are fourth in the NBA in points (117.6) third in field goal percent (50.6) and second in assist/turnover ratio (+10.4). Those Pacers were rightfully maligned for their lack of rebounding prowess, after spending most of the year around 26th in the NBA in rebounding. These Pacers, however, are tenth in the league in boards (44.4 rpg).
Just two games before Lance arrived, Indy gave up 70 points to the plodding Memphis Grizzlies in the first half. Just three games before Lance, Indy hosted the Timberwolves, who found their lottery ticket in their Christmas stocking I believe, and lost.
It’s not like Lance is putting up Russell Westbrook stats, or anything. He’s averaging a little over 8 points, but that’s beside the point. Lance’s impact is all intangible, like David Ross’ on the Cubs during Chicago’s World Series run. Yeah, Ross would hit the occasional home run – much like how Lance will make the occasional three to close a quarter, or a whirly-twirly floater in the lane- but Ross’ and Lance’s impact go far beyond the actual production: They both added confidence to their respective teams. Lance has proven to be the stabilizing factor that the mostly passive Pacers’ roster needed to excel.
The real question is can Indy capitalize on their new found momentum? If Indy loses Wednesday to Atlanta and Miami and Chicago both win, then the Pacers are out of the playoffs. The good news is that the Pacers do control their destiny. And the playoffs aren’t as impossible as they appeared a couple weeks ago. While still the favorites, after winning four straight (and looking like they’d finally turned it on) the Cavs have lost their last three. Boston hasn’t beaten a playoff-bound team since the Heat by 4 on March 26. So, it’s not like the two top Eastern teams are tearing up the league as the playoffs approach.
There is no guarantee that these Pacers can deliver. But there’s one thing that can be guaranteed, these Pacers aren’t going to go quietly into that good night.
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