This was a huge gamble, but fortunately for the Indiana Pacers, there was a positive outcome. With the Pacers stumbling towards the regular season finish line, coach Frank Vogel made the drastic decision to bench all five starters in their clash with the league’s worst team, the Milwaukee Bucks, on Wednesday night.
The idea was to give the “worn out” starting unit some rest, recover from niggling injuries, and allow them to recuperate both physically and mentally for the final stretch of the season. It would also give the bench unit some extended minutes to jell on the court, and hopefully also help the starters stand back and observe what has been going wrong with the team over the last couple of months so they can figure it out heading into the playoffs.
But make no mistake — this was a HUGE risk. The Pacers bench has underperformed all season, and a loss to the lowly Bucks — who were amped up for seeing the benching as a sign of disrespect — could trample whatever confidence and dignity this team has left. More importantly, despite their well-documented struggles, the Pacers aren’t actually out of the hunt for their No. 1 goal this season, the Eastern Conference’s top seed. Miami lost to Brooklyn the night before and was only a half game ahead in the standings, meaning home court advantage through the conference finals was not just theoretically within reach — it was there to be grabbed.
And so, with their season hanging by a thread, the Pacers bench squad helped Vogel look like a genius by edging out the Bucks, 104-102, on a last second floater by none other than Chris Copeland. It was as good as a buzzer beater because the Bucks had no time outs and had to launch a full court shot as time expired.
Winning by 2 points against the league’s worst team isn’t usually something to go wild over, but in this case it could turn out to be the turning point for the Pacers’ season. It was great to see Copeland, who has inexplicably seen little court time all year, nail the game-winner and finish with 18 points on 7-8 shots including 4-5 from downtown. He should be a huge weapon for the Pacers in the playoffs and I hope this will make Vogel use him more.
Even better was seeing Luis Scola put up a season high 24 points (11-17 from the field) and Evan Turner score 23 (9-18 shooting). Both dudes had been playing horrendously, but they showed tonight they’ve still got game. Perhaps this will give them both — Scola in particular with his mid-range jump shot — more confidence when they return to the bench.
Oh, and CJ Watson returned tonight after missing a stack of games with a hamstring injury, and had 8 points off the bench in 7 minutes. Great to see him back to provide a steadying influence on the team.
In all, a great team effort, and it was fantastic seeing they guys, including the regular starters, go crazy when Cope hit the game-winner. That’s the kind of camaraderie that could make the “selfish” Pacers start playing for each other again.
It actually turned out to be an almost-perfect night for Indiana. They got an uplifting and exciting win on the road (their first road win since March 15), no one got injured, the starters got to rest, CJ came back, AND Miami lost to Memphis, putting Indiana back on top in the East with a half-game lead.
This means Friday’s game in Miami will be the biggest game of the season for both teams and will likely determine the all-important home court advantage in the conference finals, should both teams make it that far (not guaranteed with the way both teams have been playing).
I’ll break it down for you. If Indiana wins, they will only need to win one of their last two games (against OKC at home or Orlando on the road) to clinch the top seed, and it won’t matter even if Miami wins its last three games of the season (@Atlanta, @Washington, Philly). If Indiana loses, however, they will have to win both their final games and hope Miami loses one of their last three; if the Pacers split their last two they’ll need Miami to lose two of three (unlikely).