By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
INDIANAPOLIS – There was a rush to judgment for some inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse Friday night, a desire driven by desperation to declare that the kids were all right. That the Indiana Pacers, in beating a good team (Chicago) in ways most familiar (stifling defense, balanced scoring, ball movement, sweeping of the boards), were back, baby.
It was easy to get drawn into the feel-good atmosphere in the moments soon after the Pacers’ 91-79 victory, a game they blew open in the third quarter and managed comfortably to the end. The numbers stacked up beautifully, an homage to Indiana’s 16-1 start that got everything rolling this season:
- They held the Bulls to 79 points. The Pacers are 12-0 when doing that in 2013-14.
- They limited the guys in black to 36.4 percent shooting. Anything under 40 percent, Indiana is 25-2.
- They controlled the glass 51-36 against a normally sound rebounding team, grabbing 13 on the offensive end. When they’re in double digits at that end, the Pacers are 24-4.
- They had 27 assists on 34 field goals. They’re 34-3 just cracking 20.
- And when all five starters score in double figures, this generally kumbaya crew is 12-2.
So the ball was hopping, the Fieldhouse was hot (Indiana guys got the game’s three technical fouls, though Chicago was more frustrated) and the Pacers’ recent worrisome streak – four straight losses earlier this month in which they gave up an average of 106 points, and a clunker in New York Wednesday – was getting brushed off almost blithely. After all, didn’t even coach Frank Vogel embrace Friday’s performance as a statement game about how dominant his guys can be and how legit their aspirations are?
“I think we did remind ourselves of who we are,” Vogel said, “in terms of a potentially suffocating defensive team that plays together on the offensive end and shares the basketball. We have a lot of weapons.”
It was left to Luis Scola to throw a damp blanket over the evening.
“I don’t think we’re out of it yet,” Scola said, soberly coming down from one of his best games this season, a season-high 19 points with 12 in the second quarter when Indiana’s bench jump-started most of the good stuff that followed.
“We just played one good game,” Scola said. “I believe in us, as much as anybody else or more. But we just played one good game.
“It wasn’t just one bad game we had. The longer you’ve been down is probably the longer it’s going to take you to come out of it. … If we go [Saturday] and lose against Memphis, it doesn’t mean nothing. We need to play well. Then we need to go to Chicago and we’ve got to play well again.”
Scola has earned the right to be cautious. No one game this season has fast-tracked his adjustment to contributing off the Pacers bench as a backup and reasonable facsimile for starter David West. Acquired last July from Phoenix, Scola has been inconsistent in the role. At times, he even appeared to regress: he went from 19.1 minutes, 8.4 points and 4.8 rebounds in November to 14.9, 5.8 and 4.8 in February. Those February numbers were eerily similar to the 2012-13 production of Tyler Hansbrough, the fellow over whom Scola was supposed to be such an upgrade.
So far, March has gone a little better individually for Scola – he’s shooting 53.8 percent, after hitting 37.6 percent the first two months of 2014. But this business of fitting in with a proven group and somehow fixing what was, at worst, only slightly broken is tricky. Evan Turner has learned that since arriving at the trade deadline in the surprise deal for Danny Granger. Big Andrew Bynum‘s swollen knee has blocked him from finding out.
“How to fit in and not stop their rhythm,” Turner said Friday of the challenge with which he’s still grappling. “And at the same time not be too passive or overly aggressive. Each night I have to figure out which way I have to play, whether I need to be aggressive or some nights I need to play defense and just pass the ball.”
Vogel takes responsibility for Scola’s limited opportunities or minutes variations – West still is averaging 30 a night, with Scola playing a career-low 17.1. But the Pacers coach didn’t sound bothered or unhappy with the 33-year-old’s impact.
“Scola’s just extremely passionate about playing great basketball,” Vogel said. “I probably have not rewarded him enough when he has a good burst. [He] played the whole second quarter [against Chicago] because he was playing his tail off. He’s a great competitor, great warrior. And a really good basketball player who, when he gets opportunity, he’s going to produce for you.”
Early in the season, Scola was noticeably rattled by the pace of his Indiana learning curve, displeased with his contribution. He didn’t fess up to that Friday but, when pressed, did admit to a new set point for what he considers a good night’s work.
“I’m just happy to be on a good team,” Scola said. “That could be something I learned. I learned it’s more fun to play less on a team like this, vs. play more on a bad team. Which I didn’t know early in the year.
“Playing more was very important to me. And it still is, but if I have to play 30 minutes on a team that is not in the playoffs, it’s less fun than this.”
Forget the sweeping statements for the Pacers or for Scola Friday. Somebody could use the word “fun” in their postgame locker room, and for a night, that was progress enough.