All Business: Pacers Start Second Half Right

by Manny Randhawa | @MannyRsports

February 19, 2014 | 12:22 a.m.

They won 33 of their first 40 games, but just seven of their final 12 going into the All-Star break. The “Dog Days,” as coach Frank Vogel referred to them, had dogged the Pacers during a late-January to mid-February malaise.

But with the unofficial midway point of the NBA season now behind them (Indiana played 52 of its 82 games before All-Star weekend), the next marker on the calendar is what the Pacers have been looking forward to since last June: the playoffs.

Following a dozen games in which they looked, at many times, lackluster and worn down, the Pacers played with renewed vigor in a 108-98 win over the Atlanta Hawks Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the first contest of the final 30.

Indiana burst out of the gate white-hot from the field, connecting on 13 of 14 shots to begin the game. Paul George – who at least for the moment awakened from his recent offensive slumber – hit his first six shots en route to a game-high 26-point performance as the Pacers jumped out to a 31-9 lead with 4:37 to play in the first quarter.

And despite allowing Atlanta to shoot 48 percent from the floor on the night, the Pacers’ defense forced 22 turnovers that led to 35 points, swarming around the basketball and wreaking havoc on the Hawks’ offensive schemes.

“Our guys showed a great deal of intensity and focus and determination to get off to a good start, not only to tonight’s game, but to the final stretch here – these final 30 games,” Vogel said after the game.

It’s that time now.

Call it what you will: home stretch, the downhill part of the mountain, the part of the long journey at which you can finally see that little light at the end of the tunnel. The Pacers are there, and they played like it Tuesday.

“It’s a 30-game season,” said David West, who scored 17 points. “And we’re off to a good start … Obviously, you want to be playing your best ball in March and April, heading into the playoffs. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but this is a focused group and we’ve got a job to do.”

That job – at least in the very short term – was made a bit more difficult for two Pacers in particular.

Both George and Roy Hibbert, the two members of the team selected as All-Stars, had the honor/responsibility of representing the Pacers in New Orleans over the weekend. The two had obligations to speak with national media over the four-day NBA showcase, and then participate in the game itself.

Hibbert played 12 minutes off the bench, scoring eight points for the Eastern Conference on 4-of-5 shooting.

George, however, had a lot more on his plate.

On Saturday, he participated in the Slam Dunk Contest, which he helped the East win under the new team format. He then had a pretty standard regular season game-like workload in the All-Star Game itself on Sunday, logging 33 minutes during which he scored 18 points for the victorious East squad on 6-of-13 from the field.

It would certainly not have been surprising if George – a young player that rocketed himself into the national conversation about the best talents in the NBA this season, but struggled going into the All-Star break – after meeting the demands of the weekend, which included national media attention on top of everything else, had another off-night in Game No. 53 on Tuesday.

But he came out on fire, throwing down two thunderous dunks in the midst of his early scoring barrage and beginning his personal second half in a seminal individual season the right way.

George said he was able to mentally compartmentalize both the All-Star festivities and the beginning of the second half.

“It was easy,” George said of the task. “This weekend it was all fun, and now this is business. That’s really where I kept it.”

For a 23 year-old in his second All-Star season, who is still learning to navigate the path of stardom, George’s performance Tuesday was all the more impressive.

As was the Pacers’ performance as a whole. With the lofty goals that this squad has set – NBA Finals or bust – the energy and execution that was on display at The Fieldhouse against the Hawks was a very good sign; an indicator that the foot is back on the gas pedal.

“The last couple of weeks of the first half of the season, that’s when teams normally drop down and prepare for the All-Star break and pick it up from there,” George Hill said. “But that’s over now. We’ve got a tough second-half that we’ve got to make like the first half. And that’s our mission.”

“This is where you start to build habits and where this team needs to start to come into its own,” George said of this point in the season. “This is important basketball that we’re playing right now … We’ve got to work on trying to put teams away early and maintaining leads and coming out with great energy, and I thought we did that tonight; we just didn’t do it throughout the whole game.”

George was referring to the latter part of the second quarter, in which the Hawks were able to briefly close the gap to as little as three.

But the Pacers nevertheless rebounded and notched their 41st victory of the season, with the next win assuring them of another winning campaign with 29 contests remaining.

The bottom line, however, is this, as Hibbert put so clearly and concisely:

“We’ve got 30 games left to get ready for the playoffs.”

One down, 29 to go.

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