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Determination, defense, and key adjustments help Indiana Pacers get key win over Orlando Magic

Indiana needed to beat Orlando in their playoff chase
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ORLANDO — The Indiana Pacers had a more important game than usual on Sunday night as they took on the Orlando Magic. Not only had the Magic already beaten the Pacers twice this season — meaning there was pride at stake — but they were also just ahead of the Pacers in the Eastern Conference standings. The race for playoff positioning in the East is tight.

At tipoff, Indiana had 35 wins. Orlando had 37. Narrowing that gap was important for the blue and gold if they wanted to stay close in the postseason race. They already lost the tiebreaker to the Magic thanks to a pair of head-to-head losses.

"Where we are now and how close the [playoff] race is and how impactful every game is, I think that you have to approach games just kind of one game at a time. We obviously understand the standings and stuff like that," Pacers star Tyrese Haliburton said after the game. "I feel like we were kind of hyper focused on that. We've just got to understand we've got to take it one day at a time."

A game with added significance and meaning can lead to unfocused play. Early, that appeared to be the case for the Pacers. It took them nearly six minutes to score more than two points, and they were behind by as much as 15 points in the first half. It was ugly — the blue and gold looked dead in the water against a team they had struggled with all season.

Then came some adjustments. Head coach Rick Carlisle brought in both Obi Toppin and T.J. McConnell less than six minutes into the game. That isn't unusual for Toppin, but is earlier than normal for McConnell. The Pacers needed a new look.

Those two were terrific. From the 4:04 mark of the first quarter to the 7:31 mark of the second quarter — nearly nine minutes of play — McConnell scored or assisted every single shot the Pacers made. Toppin, meanwhile, didn't miss a shot in the first half and grabbed three rebounds. Those two changed the look of the game.

They helped guide a comeback. Indiana was down 35-20 with nine minutes to go in the second quarter, yet they trailed by just three at halftime. 76 seconds into the third quarter, they were ahead. The slight shift in the rotation was huge for the Pacers.

"T.J. McConnell gave us a great lift," Carlisle said after the game. "He got to the rim a few times, and it really boosted our energy."

Toppin was an energy provider as well, something he said he wanted to bring when he checked in. Toppin added value throughout the night, finishing with 17 points and eight rebounds while shooting 7/9 from the field. His size is important against a bigger Orlando team, and he filled in at center during a key stretch in the third quarter. Indiana needed Toppin and McConnell to be great after a poor start, and they were both ready.

Defensively, the Pacers showed up. After a rocky start to the action, they began to defend pick and rolls involving their bigger players differently by switching more often. It disrupted the Magic's offense and forced the hosts to take more jumpers. Orlando didn't score more than 26 points in a quarter and scored just 97 by the final buzzer, the fewest the blue and gold have allowed in a game this season.

The third quarter, in which Indiana conceded just 21 points and got out in transition often, was key in the win. "I think in the second half, we just flipped the switch. We locked in," Pacers defensive anchor Myles Turner said. He was excellent on the less glamorous end of the floor, deterring some shots while swatting others away — his six blocks were a season high.

"We were trying to make an emphasis to cut [Orlando's paint attacks] down some. They're a physical team... we did a great job of taking on the challenge," Turner added. In an important game, the Pacers defended well, something they have rarely done this season. It was more proof that they treated this game like a must-win.

"There's a lot on the line in all of these games. Lot of emotions, a lot of meaning, a lot of stuff in the standings," Carlisle said after the game. "They're all big."

The Pacers played like it was a big game. Miami and New York also lost Sunday night, so Indiana had an opportunity to make up ground in the standings. They took advantage. Entering the day, the team didn't appear to be in form. They needed a win like that and got it.

McConnell stressed that every game is important and the team needs to be locked in for 48 minutes. They were determined to win this one, and they did. It helped them keep up in the standings, and they are close to being in a playoff position once again.

"Every game from here on out is a playoff game," Turner said in the locker room after the victory. His defensive level proved that he felt that way, as did the team's response to a slow start. The Pacers might not be playing their best right now, but they got an important win Sunday and showed that they all know the reality of their postseason chase.

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