PHOENIX – It didn’t matter so much for the Indiana Pacers that they fell 124-100 to the Phoenix Suns. The Wednesday win was bigger for the Suns, the league upstarts who not only wanted to send a message about their place in the NBA but need every win without Eric Bledsoe to remain in the playoff picture.
Frank Vogel’s team looked sleepy.
But this is the team that’s been so open about playing every game with the intensity of the NBA Finals. They’ve put a target on the Miami Heat – there’s little else to worry about out East – but want to see LeBron James’ mug rather than Gerald Green’s.
Maybe they should have realized it was, in fact, Gerald Green, and not LeBron and his affinity to, you know, pass. Green had airspace, and soon the scoreboard displayed a lot of space between the teams’ scores.
Green finished with 23 points against his former team as Jeff Hornacek went with a limited rotation until things became a little uncomfortable in the second half. Goran Dragic added 21 points and three dimes, and just as things had gone on Sunday against Denver, the bench unit earned the entire fourth quarter in minutes – Vogel emptied his bench with six minutes to play.
By allowing 62 first-half points on 55 percent shooting to the Suns, the Pacers went to the break with their worst defensive half of their season. The Suns hit 7-of-10 three-point attempts and would have made it a bigger advantage had they not missed seven free throws.
Leading by 13 at halftime, the Suns opened the third on a 10-2 run behind a probing Dragic who found the midrange jumper open.
The Pacers threatened by getting back to their grinding style late in the third quarter, but more masterful rotation decisions by Hornacek turned the game back in Phoenix’s favor.
Here’s how it went down in regards to my pregame questions.
Can Miles Plumlee make his former team work on both ends?
Plumlee scored five points and looked aggressive against Hibbert in the first quarter. He also did as much as you could ask in holding Hibbert down in the paint, one time even poking the ball away from Hibbert on a post-up attempt.
Hibbert recorded six points, three boards and two blocks in the first quarter. After that, he only added one rebounds — that’s it. Plumlee finished with 11 points, seven rebounds and one timely putback slam that showed just how much his speed affected Hibbert’s size.
Overall, the Suns seemed to care less about Hibbert’s shot-blocking. The big man scored six first-quarter points but battled foul trouble against the relentlessly attacking Suns, who weren’t finding much resistance once they got by their defenders.
In hindsight, the Suns presented more matchup problems than the Pacers posed to them. As they say, you can’t physically pummel what you can’t catch.
Will going small be possible for Phoenix against Indiana?
Phoenix didn’t play Ish Smith or Alex Len against the Pacers in the first half. Gerald Green played 20 first-half minutes at shooting guard, and about as small as Phoenix would get is playing Barbosa and Dragic with one another in the third quarter.
That’s when Indiana attacked time and time again, slowing the tempo by drawing fouls. Hornacek went with Ish Smith and Leandro Barbosa in the final two minutes heading into the fourth, hoping to pump the pace back to where the Suns had gotten it throughout the first half. Smith made quick work of Indiana, which allowed him an open 16-footer which he buried then got caught sleeping after a made bucket; Smith pushed back to score on an And 1 as the Suns went to the fourth quarter with a 96-79 lead.
Frye also saw extended minutes as the backup center. He and the Morris twins made Indiana uncomfortable, and it was the bench unit that created some buffer for the starters to get a solid amount of rest despite Hornacek only going eight players deep in the rotation until the Pacers changed the complexion of the game in the third quarter.
Markieff Morris hit two threes as Phoenix went small to start the fourth quarter, the final over Hibbert being the backbreaker. Morris finished with 20 points.
How does Dragic do on the big stage?
Dragic started fast, scoring seven points in the first quarter against George Hill, who came into the game with a thigh bruise that had Vogel mildly questioning his status before the game. And while Dragic burned Indy in the first half by pushing the ball on breaks, the Suns came out cautiously but focused in the second. In the halfcourt, Dragic hit a few mid-range jumpers that were likely to be available heading into the game.
Most impressively, Dragic and the Suns seemed unintimidated by Hibbert’s length inside. In the first half, Leandro Barbosa tested out Hibbert, who then sent a floater into the fifth row before he playfully talked smack with his former teammates. On the inbound play, Barbosa went right back at the Pacers big man, floating a shot in for Barbosa’s first hoop.