INDIANAPOLIS — What happened in the third quarter Monday night certainly changed the game. It may well change the series, as well, if it means the Indiana Pacers finally discovered the formula to beat the Orlando Magic.
The defense, solid throughout, dug deeper, limiting the Magic to five points in the final 8 minutes of the third quarter. In turn, the offense, quite frankly a mess for six quarters, finally found some rhythm in a 27-7 run that lifted the Pacers off the ropes and on to a 93-78 victory in Game 2 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
After going dry down the stretch in losing the opener 81-77 on Saturday, Indiana bounced back to tie the Eastern Conference first-round series and build much-needed confidence heading to Orlando for the next two games.
“We can’t get too high after this victory,” said David West, who once again was the emotional and physical leader with 18 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots. “They still have an advantage going there. There’s room for us to improve, and we know it’s going to be a tough environment going down there.”
A number of adjustments were made at halftime after what one player described as “spirited” words were exchanged in the locker room that could prove critical to Indiana’s ability to avoid a stunning first-round upset.
After employing a hockey line-change approach and making wholesale substitutions in Game 1 and the first half of Game 2 — resulting in broken momentum that allowed Orlando to take control — Pacers coach Frank Vogel went to the trickle-down approach in the second half, bringing in the subs one at a time. The result was an extension of the momentum built by the first unit in the game-turning run.
Defensively, the Pacers altered their approach to Orlando’s 3-point shooters. After focusing on closing out with strong challenges in the first six quarters, they opted to run the shooters off the arc in the second half. The difference? Orlando made just two 3-pointers in the second half after sinking six in the first. With the supply of lifeblood choked off, the Magic wilted, scoring just 13 in the third quarter and 34 in the half.
That adjustment put an end to the first-half scrambles that took the Pacers out of position and opened up the defensive glass. Orlando had 12 offensive rebounds and 22 second-chance points in the first half, but just one offensive board for two points in the second.
“They’re a challenging team to guard,” Vogel said. “We guarded the 3 better in the second half, and we finally began executing what we were looking for offensively. We still haven’t shot the ball well, but I like the way we shared in the second half.”
After playing through All-Star center Roy Hibbert in the post most of the season, the focus has shifted to West, who has 37 points, 20 rebounds and six assists in the first two games. Hibbert attempted just five shots in Game 2 but has 26 rebounds and 11 blocked shots thus far.
“We are riding the coattails of David West right now,” said Paul George, who scored 17 and added eight rebounds. “With his help and everybody else’s, we’ll be alright.”
Indiana remains at a disadvantage, having surrendered the home-court edge, but it does carry momentum into Game 3. The defense, which has limited Orlando to an average of 79.5 points on 37.6 percent shooting in two games, has frustrated Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, who is trying to find his own formula for how to win without Dwight Howard.
“We’re going to have to be better offensively,” Van Gundy said. “I’m going to have to find something that works. . . . Sometimes I’m not even sure what our game is, honestly.”
But for the final four minutes of Game 1, when they blew a 77-70 lead by missing their final nine shots, allowing the Magic to steal an 81-77 victory, the Pacers would be where most expected them to be at this point — up 2-0 and in firm control.
They lack control, but they appear to have gained the mental edge in Game 2.
“We know what we have to do on defense and how hard we have to play,” George said. “We returned to the battle and fought.”
It is a long way from over, but the Pacers have given themselves a fighting chance.
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