Much of the Indiana Pacers’ redesign from their hard-nosed identity over the last several years had to do with pace.
Frank Vogel’s team sent lumbering center Roy Hibbert to Los Angeles this summer and set out to space the court with healthy star swingman Paul George. As a result, they’ve jumped from 19th in pace last season to ninth in 2015-16.
What wasn’t missed in the new skin was the Pacers’ continued commitment to playing defense.
Indiana entered Tuesday night ranking second behind the Spurs by allowing opponents to score 98.1 points per 100 possessions.
Facing a Phoenix Suns team that itself allows 105.5 points per 100 possessions for the year might tell you how this one was about to go, and that’s before Jeff Hornacek nixed starting point guard Brandon Knight from the lineup because of illness.
Without Knight, Eric Bledsoe (knee), Ronnie Price (toe) or Alex Len (hand), Phoenix fell 116-97 as expected.
What might be struck down as another depressing Phoenix loss was, at the very least, a sign that Hornacek’s touch isn’t completely lost in either scheme or in reaching this year’s team.
For three quarters, the Suns held up quite well on the road, overcoming a 12-0 early Pacers lead, a power outage that delayed the game and that vaunted Indiana defense to trail just 80-76 heading into the fourth quarter.
Moral victories mean little for a 13-27 team — not when Indiana outscored the Suns 36-21 in the fourth quarter by shooting 67 percent behind George’s nine points and the defense holding Phoenix to 30 percent shooting with the flip of a switch.
But judging a team’s future begins with such things.
The Suns’ backcourt of 21-year-old Archie Goodwin and 19-year-old Devin Booker didn’t look rattled despite the less-than-perfect start, combining to hit 12-of-20 attempts for 31 points.
With Knight sidelined, Goodwin was steady enough at point guard with just one turnover to his name. Recent addition Lorenzo Brown recorded five assists and three hockey assists, according to NBA.com/Stats, but he also finished with five turnovers in his first lengthy action since joining Phoenix on a 10-day contract.
By the way, turnovers — as they’ve been to a healthy Suns team or not — again bit Hornacek’s team. Eighteen miscues turned into 27 Pacer points.
Setting that very important statistic aside, Phoenix’s defense through three quarters wasn’t lacking in effort and wasn’t riddle with breakdowns as might be expected. Take away the fastbreak opportunities, and Indiana shot 14-of-38, or 37 percent, in the halfcourt. Over that same span, the Suns were besting their opponents by shooting 43 percent on non-fastbreak attempts, all without the two point guards to lead anything like a two-point guard attack.
Markieff Morris, who played 27 minutes with Len out and Indiana’s propensity to go small, went 6-of-11 for 13 points in the first three quarters but launched seven shots in the fourth quarter — four were long jumpers — and hit just one.
It was a failed attempt to will his way completely back into the rotation but an attempt nonetheless.
Booker hit all six shots he took in the second half and the Suns’ apparent urging of Goodwin to attack after he took just one shot in the first half was fulfilled. Goodwin scored 10 of his 12 points in the third.
By the end of the night, Mirza Teletovic matched Booker for a team-high 19 points while hitting five treys, and the Suns may have been in better shape overall had T.J. Warren (4-of-14 on the evening) not found uncommon struggles finishing with his patented floaters at the rim.
Fourth-quarter floundering indeed marks a bad NBA team.
But the Suns over the last three games have proved that they refuse to believe that.
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