It looked a little worrying for a while, but the Indiana Pacers put together a suffocating defensive effort in the fourth quarter before eventually pulling away from the Cleveland Cavaliers to cruise to a 91-76 victory in their final game of 2013. The win gives the Pacers a 25-5 record to end the year, the best in franchise history, and coupled with Portland's comeback win against Oklahoma City gives them sole ownership of the best record in the NBA -- again.
It wasn't easy, but the Pacers got it done on a night where it seemed their shots just wouldn't fall. Paul George led the team with 21 points but on just 7-19 shooting. Lance Stephenson, who said the afternoon start time of 3pm suited him as that was when he had the most energy, didn't look for his shot and finished with a quiet 6 points but a team-high 8 assists. Roy Hibbert was dominant, putting up 19 points on 8-13 shooting to go with 5 blocks. David West was bothered by foul trouble and possibly the early start time as he finished with just 8 points, but George Hill picked up the slack with 13 points and a solid defensive effort on Kyrie Irving, who scored just 10 points on 3-9 shooting before injuring his knee on an awkward drive in the third quarter. Uncle Drew returned later but was largely a non-factor and said his knee still doesn't feel right. He's set to undergo an MRI on Wednesday, and let's hope it's nothing serious.
Oh, and Danny Granger alert. Batman scored 12 points on 3-7 shooting (missing all 4 three-point attempts but making all 6 free throws, 4 rebounds and 2 steals in 19 minutes of action. He's looking more and more comfortable by the day, as evidenced by a couple of his moves in the lane tonight. With Luis Scola and Ian Mahinmi finding their rhythm on the bench squad and CJ Watson still solid on most nights, adding an effective Danny Granger could put them over the top.
For the Pacers, the 2013 portion of the season probably couldn't have gone any better. I was one of a few people who underestimated them and pegged them at third or fourth in the East, but they've shown that they are legitimate title contenders as long as the team can stay healthy.
Tomorrow night they head to Toronto for their first game of 2014. The Raptors, coming off an 89-75 road demolition of the Bulls, have won 8 of their last 11 games and are looking like a potentially dangerous foe. Fingers crossed that the Pacers can kick off the new year with a victory.