The LA Clippers were without Chris Paul, the best point guard in the league, but they had won 5-staight coming into tonight's game against the Pacers, with Blake Griffin tearing it up everywhere. It was the second night of a back-to-back for the Clips, an area they have struggled in (as have the Pacers), so it seemed like the game was the Pacers to lose.
Well, the Pacers almost gave it away when David West was ejected after the half time buzzer for one of the stupidest plays of his career. Griffin had raced down court and missed a reverse layup at the buzzer. West and Griffin jostled for the pointless rebound, and their arms tangled up just because they don't like each other. Instead of just letting go, West inexplicable swung his arm at away at Griffin's head and neck area. The result? A flagrant two and the loss of Griffin's primary defender.
The Pacers had a comfortable 16-point lead at the time, but it suddenly looked a lot less comfortable with West out for the entire second half. And as expected, the Clips started to make a run, cutting the lead down to 10 by the end of the third and making the fans at Bankers Life Fieldhouse very nervous, especially as Roy Hibbert had picked up his 4th foul.
Instead, the Pacers went to a small lineup that put Danny Granger at PF, and the Paul George and Lance Stephenson put together a spectacular two-man show to stretch the lead to as much as 22 and effectively ice the game. Huge win for the Pacers on a night when a stupid play from West could have really come back to haunt them. More importantly, it allowed the 32-7 Pacers to hold on to their 3.5 game lead over the Heat, who beat the Bobcats in OT.
Paul George was incredible tonight, scoring a game-high 36 points with surreal ease (12-17 from the field, 5-6 from downtown and 7-7 from the line), including a potential dunk of the year entry when he threw down a vicious 360 windmill on the break that just about brought the house down. By the way, George was equally spectacular defensively as he clamped down on the red hot JJ Reddick, forcing the sharpshooter to just 8 points on 4-17 shooting.
Lance Stephenson had some bad stretches tonight with overdribbling and bad shots, but the Pacers will take the bad with the good when he can put up 22 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists. Danny Granger and CJ Watson both sored in double figures off the bench (12 and 11 respectively), while Roy Hibbert had 11 rebounds (5 offensive) and 5 blocks to go with a quiet 4 points in 26 minutes as he sat out the entire 4th quarter.
George Hill, who scored just 6 (and whose average is in danger of dipping below 10 if he keeps this up), did an excellent job on ex-teammate Darren Collison, as did the rest of the Pacers who knew very well that Collison struggles under immense ball pressure and forced him into 4 turnovers and a bunch of poor decisions.
In all, this was a good test for the Pacers as they played without West and had Hibbert in foul trouble. These kind of wins build confidence and character, and it's what they will need as they now head into their final extended west coast road trip of the season. The 5 games are not all against elite opponents — Warriors, Suns, Kings, Nuggets and the Lakers — but these kind of trips are never easy.
The most difficult game is of course the first one against the Warriors, but the Suns have been sneakily impressive this season (and Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee will be looking to have big games against their former team) and the Kings will be looking for revenge after getting drubbed in Indy this week. The Nuggets game will be on the second night of a back-to-back, and with the altitude issues it will be tough to pull out, especially as Nuggets coach Brian Shaw (and former Pacers associate head coach) will know all of the players' tendencies. The Lakers look like the weakest team of the bunch, but the final game of a road trip is always a grind, so anything can happen there. If the Pacers can go 3-2 or better during this stretch it should be considered a success.