Indiana Pacers 112, Phoenix Suns 104 – A punch to the gut

PHOENIX – Lindsey Hunter likes the Indiana Pacers. They’re the well-rounded offensive attack anchored by the NBA’s best defense that the Suns interim coach, as you might expect knowing his playing history, would like his team to eventually emulate should he see Phoenix’s rebuilding process through.

“I love chippiness. I love playing with an edge,” Hunter said. “I love being on the floor thinking a fight may break out any minute. It’s kind of fun.

He paused, and to clear it up: “Not a brawl, but a pushing match.”

The Suns fell 112-104 to the Pacers on Saturday in front of a relatively lively home crowd, and the loss to one of the Miami Heat’s biggest enemies – chippy play included – was a relieving sight for Phoenix during these dark days. Goran Dragic returned from a two-game hiatus with what Hunter called “rockets on his shoes.”

“Rocky is back in the building,” Hunter said before the game.

And the coach sold why the team was resting him quite well, adding that the perception about the connection to the Suns’ lottery balls didn’t bother him.

“Bruise under his eye is healed a little bit,” Hunter said. “Hopefully his rib cage is a little (better) … like I said, the kid looks like he’s boxing. If you can look at him after the game, it’s like, ‘There’s no way this kid is getting up tomorrow to practice.’ But you love that about him.

“He’ll kill himself if you let him.”

Dragic scored 21 points and added nine assists for Phoenix, but the Suns didn’t have their point guard around to deliver the knockout punch because he fouled out in the finals minutes. He and Pacers star Paul George went back-and-forth throughout the game, but George ended up finishing the game and scoring 25 points.

Putting up a quick 15 points in the first 5:10 of the first quarter, the Suns finished the period by scoring just six more points as the Pacers built a 27-21 lead. Phoenix clung to a single-digit deficit for most of the night and in the game managed to shoot 49 percent against the NBA’s best defensive team.

“Guys passed up good shots and we got great shots,” Hunter said. “The game dictates what you should do. A lot of times we don’t listen ’cause we want to make a play instead of taking a play. Tonight we took the plays the game presented. We moved the ball to the open guy. It was a great thing to watch.”

This came all despite the Pacers pulling down 19 offensive boards – they only scored 13 second-chance points off all those opportunities and Phoenix oddly had 18.

And those two statistics together allude to Hunter saying he is working with the Suns in finishing plays. Though there were missed rebounds, Phoenix hung tight to continue defending and because of it was within a single possession until the final two minutes.

With Phoenix trailing 57-49, Dragic came out of the halftime break dishing. He recorded four assists in the first 2:30 of the third quarter as Phoenix climbed within two points. The Suns point guard finished with nine assists to end his double-double streak at five games.

Markieff Morris’ success in the second half was evidence more of the Pacers’ lapses in focus on Saturday. Finishing with 18 points on 8-of-12 shooting, he blew by David West twice in the second half then started knocking down step-back jumpers as his confidence grew.

“He was guarding well, especially West,” Dragic said. “He was huge especially in the third and fourth quarter. We were iso-ing him and he knocked down some huge shots for us, and he was driving.”

But as close as Phoenix had kept the game, a George splash from three-point range with less than four minutes to play in the third bumped the Pacers lead back to nine.

Dragic drilled a three-pointer on the tail end of a 9-2 Phoenix run to start the fourth, but George answered with timely buckets once again, scoring five straight points. And with the Suns down 10, they punched back quickly behind Dragic, making Hunter’s boxing analogy quite accurate.

Phoenix trailed 102-101 with 2:46 to play but the Pacers continued to attack – they took 46 free throws to the Suns’ 19 – and the Suns couldn’t get the stop needed to pull the upset.

So were there any moral victories? Some would say yes – Hunter called them “small victories” – but the fact remains that Phoenix is eyeing that top draft pick.

“I’d say (there is) more frustration where we can play so well offensively against this team that’s the best defensive team,” Jared Dudley said. “It’s got to be more consistent. ‘Til we fix it, we’ll be at the bottom.”

Did the free throw discrepancy doom Phoenix?

The Suns lots the free throw battle tremendously, but whether it was an issue depends on who you ask. Hunter didn’t want to speak much about the refereeing.

“I guess we have to tell our guys to drive to the basket a little harder,” he said.

After more prodding, he added, “I guess we have to be a little more aggressive.”

Dudley said that it was simply how much the Pacers dump it down to West and Hibbert. That’s not to mention George, whose slashing earned him 12 free throws.

And Dragic said it was all about aggressiveness.

“They got a lot of calls because they play tough,” the Slovenian said. “Sometimes if you’re not playing tough and then you try to switch in the third or the fourth quarter, the referees, they aren’t going to call it.”

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Hunter added that Dragic and perhaps even Luis Scola will see more nights off throughout the rest of the remaining schedule to reduce their mileage with the future on the mind.

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