The Indiana Pacers needed a win in the worst way. Entering Tuesday night, the Pacers had lost seven-straight games and had some atrocious defeats along the way. There were signs of growth in recent games, but they still all ended in losses.
"I'm not a big moral victory guy," Pacers guard T.J. McConnell said on Monday. "We have to come together and find a way to streak some wins together."
The Chicago Bulls were in town on Tuesday, and on paper they would be a formidable foe. They beat Indiana by 15 earlier in the season and had won three straight games, so they were in form. They were beatable, but the Pacers hadn't been playing well.
Early on, it looked like Chicago was going to run away with the game. They jumped out to a quick lead and had a 12-point cushion at the end of the first quarter. In the second frame, the Bulls expanded their lead as high as 21. They were rolling through the struggling Pacers.
The Pacers could have easily phoned it in at that point. They were down big and hadn't won since January 8. Instead, though, they regrouped at halftime and were confident. They knew they could pull off a comeback and end their losing streak.
"I think that first half, we just weren't in sync. We weren't together as a cohesive unit," Pacers center Myles Turner said after the game. He noted that the halftime message was to get back on the same page, compete, and play hard.
The Pacers, led by Turner, did get on the same page and compete. They were great in the third quarter, outscoring the Bulls 34-25 in the frame to cut the lead down to seven. They still had some work to do, but the blue and gold showed that they had the spirit and gameplan to get a win.
Turner guided that run. He had 16 points in the third quarter alone while adding two rebounds and a block. He battled with former All-Star big man Nikola Vucevic down low and dominated that matchup. He swung the game's momentum back toward the Pacers.
The blue and gold put in a new action recently that is designed to get Turner the ball in the post, and they went to it in the third quarter. It worked, and suddenly the Pacers were back in the game.
The Pacers needed one more push, though. Despite having momentum and a strong desire to end their losing streak, they were still down by multiple possessions entering the final frame. They needed to close the game strong.
After a back-and-forth fourth quarter, the blue and gold finally knotted up the score at 100 with 4:57 to go. The game stayed roughly even until the final 90 seconds, when Chicago found themselves up 108-107. The Pacers were approaching another defeat.
Rookie guard Bennedict Mathurin was not having it. With 1:01 to go, the 20-year old drilled a three-point shot from the left wing to give the Pacers a two-point advantage. Vucevic tied things up with a dunk on the other end, but Mathurin responded with a layup with 29.2 on the clock.
"This is where he's unique to most rookies. Where a lot of rookies are hitting the wall and losing steam, he's actually gaining momentum," Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said of Mathurin after the game. "We certainly couldn't have won [the game] without him."
The Pacers had a 112-110 lead and just needed one more stop, and they got it via a Buddy Hield steal. Indiana was flawless in the final 30 seconds and went on to win 116-110, snapping their seven-game losing streak. They erased a huge lead to get it done.
"We needed that," Hield said after the game. "We needed a fresh start."
Indiana improved to 24-25 and stayed ahead of the Bulls in the standings. They are ninth in the Eastern Conference and half a game behind the Atlanta Hawks. For a Pacers team that was in freefall, getting this win and remaining in the thick of the standings was critical.
"I feel like a lot of teams in our position would have probably put their head down and said 'here we go again, loss number eight in a row.' But we've been saying it all year. We don't quit," veteran guard T.J. McConnell said after the game. He was excellent and finished with 20 points and 10 assists.
McConnell was outdone in the scoring column by Turner and Mathurin, who both finished with 26 points and seven rebounds. Hield gave the Pacers a timely 19 points.
Terry Taylor, who played over 20 minutes for the first time since October 22, finished with 11 points and five rebounds, and he played solid defense all night. Chris Duarte had 11 points as well.
The Pacers will hope to start a winning streak on Wednesday when they take on the Magic in Orlando.
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