Pacers secure winning record, focus on playoff seeding

Pacers, Bojan Bogdanovic, Los Angeles Clippers

The Pacers captured their 42nd win of the season Friday night, hanging on to defeat the Los Angeles Clippers in their first meeting of the season, 109-104. It guarantees the franchise a winning record for the sixth time in seven years, including three in a row.

Bojan Bogdanovic led all scorers with a game-high 28 points on 12-of-18 shooting. And when he’s hitting, it opens things up for everyone else. Victor Oladipo finished with 18 points, 14 coming in the second half, plus four rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

He’s recorded a steal in a franchise record 56 consecutive games.

The Pacers started the second half on a 17-4 run to take their largest lead of the game, 18, at 75-57. And yet the Clippers (38-34), losers in five of their last six, got back into the game, led by Lou Williams’ 27 points and 10 assists off the bench. Darren Collison, who recorded his sixth double-double of the year (13 points, 10 assists) in his eighth game since returning for left knee surgery, scored the go-ahead basket on a straight-line jumper.

Then, Oladipo poked the ball away from Tobias Harris and Thad Young scored the dagger on a put-back layup.

“Every win right now is important for us in the seeding,” said Collison. “I think every loss is important too, so we have to be on our A-game every time we come out.”

Winning record secured for the Pacers, who improved to 42-31 and matched last season’s win total.

“We’re not even thinking about that,” Young (16 points, 10 rebounds) said postgame. “We’re just trying to win as many games as possible, just trying to make sure we go out there and try to keep moving up in the standings.

“We want the best seed possible and we want to be able to go into the playoffs and have home-court advantage. I think us getting into that third or fourth spot is the biggest thing on our minds right now. So we have to go out and put our imprint on the games from the start and make sure we get wins.

The Pacers’ magic number to clinch a playoff berth is just one. A Pacers win Sunday against Miami or a Detroit Pistons loss will do it.

A winning record and playoff berth. This has become expected with the franchise, a model of consistency and never bottoming out. They have a .500 record or better for the 21st time in 29 seasons. And, since the 1988-89 season, they will have qualified for the postseason in 23 of 29 seasons.

The Pacers are the surprise team in the NBA. I can’t recall anyone predicting a winning season or a playoff spot for this season last fall. Well, expect for Myles Turner. The center disagreed with the premise of it being a rebuilding year and reiterated to whomever would listen that this group would surprise observers. He was right.

Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard completely retooled the roster in the offseason. Just six players returned from a group that finished 42-40 and was swept in Round 1 by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Trading Paul George set off a chain of deals.

“The NBA is cyclical,” he said on media day in late September. “In our market, we did our best for six, seven, eight years to be the best we possibly could. We grew up to an Eastern Conference Finals team and we tried to sustain that, but then there becomes a new cycle. … We tried to bring in some guys that would be competitive.”

They’ve been competitive, and then some. He had to be proud will sitting in his second-row perch adjacent to the Pacers’ bench at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

“We got to get these guys playing above their level and get them out of their comfort level.”

Victor Oladipo, Austin Rivers, Myles Turner, Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers

Victor Oladipo uses a Myles Turner screen to get to the paint. [Frank McGrath/PS&E]

Oladipo became an All-Star. Domantas Sabonis has excelled with a larger role. Darren Collison is playing the best basketball of his career and is flirting with a 50-40-90. Thad Young remains Mr. Consistent. And Myles Turner’s game continues to blossom.

Toronto owns the best record in the East (54-19), and the best home record in the league (30-6). Boston is second but they have a laundry list of injuries. Those two playoff seeds are settled. The LeBron-led Cavaliers are 1.5 games ahead of Philadelphia and Indiana. Washington, currently in sixth, is another game and a half back.

Win No. 42 is notable, but in the big picture the team is focused on the bigger goal: Postseason seeding.

“That’s fine but it ain’t over,” a motivated Victor Oladipo made clear. “We still got nine games left. And then we still got the playoffs. A winning season is great, don’t get me wrong it’s great but it means absolutely nothing. There’s still a lot more of our goals to accomplish.”

Of Note…

Their G League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, clinched the division title and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 119-107 win Friday night over the Windy City Bulls. They have qualified for the postseason in five of the last six seasons.

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