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Pacers Continue to Find a Way to Win

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

February 28, 2014 | 12:05 a.m.

Something was in David West's shoes.

Stepping into his black sneakers in the postgame locker room Thursday night, he cut himself off in mid-sentence.

“What the hell?” he said, taking the shoe off and pulling out a black cockroach. Moments later, he interrupted himself again. “Dammit!” And he pulled one out of the left shoe as well.

Alas, the cockroaches were plastic, put there by a prankster teammate. Which seems appropriate for the Pacers in their current state of slight discomfort. Yeah, there are bugs in the system. But they're relatively disposable and harmless.

The Pacers' 101-96 victory over Milwaukee on Thursday inspired some angst among the fanbase for its degree of difficulty. A 44-13 team shouldn't have struggled so much to defeat an 11-46 team. But the Bucks are an improving offensive team, they hit 12-of-24 three-pointers and they did most of their damage against the Pacers' second unit, after the starters had built a 15-point lead at the end of the first quarter.

“You can't look at records,” Frank Vogel said. “Everybody plays at different levels throughout the year. This team is playing much better than it has most of the year. Cleveland goes in and beats Oklahoma City last night. This is a team we should beat at home. And we did beat at home. Simple as that.”

Some legitimate areas of concern do stand like a cockroach in a shoe. Turnovers remain an issue. The Pacers had 19 of them on Thursday, leading to 25 of Milwaukee's points. Many of them were the result of forced passes, some of them from being too unselfish. The bench scoring remains suspect, too. After scoring 50 on Tuesday, it managed just 23 in this game, mostly due to Evan Turner's 2-of-10 shooting effort. The league-leading defense has slipped as well. They've given up 99.2 points per game over the past five, eight more than their average.

“We've been giving up a lot of points over the last week or so,” West said. “A lot of it is the wear and tear and going through the grind, but we're still winning games.”

The negatives are balanced by the Pacers' greatest strength, which happens to be balance. Roy Hibbert, who hit just 1-of-9 shots in a 10-point win at Milwaukee last Saturday, hit 10-of-16 on his way to 24 points. His two foul shots and short jumper on consecutive possessions iced the game, building the lead to nine with less than a minute remaining. All of the starters scored at least nine points, and they combined to hit 31-of-54 shots.

Hibbert remains a bit of a mystery in the Pacers offense. They make it a point to get him the ball at the start of every game, but often go away from him. Or, he fails to justify having the ball. Bottom line, he's averaging 11.6 points, which is in line with his past four seasons.

Vogel has talked of wanting to get more shots for his center, but said it wasn't part of the plan this time.

“They (the Bucks) were blitzing pick and rolls,” he said. “He got a lot of them out of rotations.”

Hibbert accepts the irregularity of his opportunities.

“We're such a talented team,” he said. “My offense isn't really called on that much and we're winning games, so I'm not going to go to Coach and say I want more shots. I just try to fill my role.”

They remain a whack-a-mole team. If the opponent's defense takes one guy out of the game, or someone has a bad shooting game, someone else pops up. Last weekend in Milwaukee, West scored 30 points and Hibbert had four. This time, Hibbert had 24 and West had nine. Either way, the Pacers won.

Vogel, frankly, is a little tired of the complaints about the players who don't pop up in a particular game.

“Everybody wants to target guys who don't have big nights as not being assertive enough or we didn't get them the ball enough,” he said. “We're a balanced attack. A different guy is going to get going every night, and when that happens a different guy isn't going to get going that night. It's not necessarily their fault. It's matchups.”

The Pacers will try to ride that advantage in the stretch run of the regular season and into the playoffs. Their lead over Miami has shrunk to two games, and you can't help but notice the tone of the comments from Larry Bird and Vogel has shifted slightly toward a less urgent desire for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. It's as if they don't want anyone to panic if they happen to finish second to the gathering Heat.

The Pacers will need to play better than they have the past couple of weeks to surpass the Heat, in both the regular season and playoffs. But they're 44-13, they've won four of their last five and the cockroaches in their shoes can be removed.

“These games have got to be more about us,” West said. “These games down the stretch, the majority of them are going to be against Eastern Conference opponents. We're going to have to find ways when we're not playing against playoff teams, they have to be about us and preparing for the stretch run.”

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