If anything seemed more obvious than a motivated Roy Hibbert on opening night, it’s that the Indiana Pacers will need steady play at point guard to be competitive in this first month of the NBA season.
When Donald Sloan struggled early, the Philadelphia 76ers took the lead. That was to be expected from the third point guard on the roster, thrust into a starting role due to injuries to George Hill, C.J. Watson and Rodney Stuckey.
Fortunately for the Pacers in their 103-91 Wednesday win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Stuckey was able to come off the bench and spark the team with 10 first-half points. He’s coming off a left foot strain, so head coach Frank Vogel realizes Stuckey is best used for now in limited minutes, between 15 to 20 per game. He played 16 minutes, 11 seconds.
In an ideal world, it would be the other way around. Stuckey would start and Sloan would spell him. But the Pacers are so thin, as Vogel reminded, they have to be careful about how they handle George Hill’s three-week absence.
If Stuckey’s foot flared up, that would be devastating.
The Pacers aren’t going to get 22-point games from center Roy Hibbert every night. And the youthful 76ers made the mistake of trying to drive into the 7-foot-2 center too often, which enabled him to block seven shots.
Seasoned teams will be smarter. And Hibbert won’t score as much or have as many chances to block so many shots and create fast-break opportunities. That’s why the guard play is so important.
The same for forward C.J. Miles, who showed he’ll take his fair share of shots, even when missing. That’s a shooter’s mentality. When you’re open, you’re paid to take the shot. And Miles eventually hit a few, including a couple 3-pointers, in a 6-of-17, 15-point Pacers debut. Like Sloan, he settled down as the Pacers took control of the game in the second half.
Some nights, Miles won’t find his shot. Somebody else will need to score. Again, that’s why the Pacers need Sloan to look to score in addition to creating for others — he did in the third quarter and started hitting. His 16-point, 10-rebound, 6-assist performance was as vital as Stuckey’s second-quarter spark. Without Sloan and Stuckey playing well, the Pacers wouldn’t have won this game.
Stuckey was brought to Indianapolis to penetrate. The first two times he had the ball, he sped to the rim, scored and was fouled. That’s his game. He finished with 16 points, hitting two 3-pointers, and four-of-six foul shots.
Sure, there will be contributions from others. Forward Luis Scola will do his thing with a decent outside shot. He hit five for 10 points. Reserve forward Chris Copeland will also get his looks, he hit 4-of-11 but just 2-of-7 from 3-point range for 11 points. Reserve forward Lavoy Allen plays hard and contributed a valuable six points and five rebounds.
Forward Solomon Hill hit his first shot, a 3-pointer, but didn’t look to shoot much after that. He missed his other two attempts. The Pacers need him to be a bit more aggressive. The jury is still out on him as well as Croatian rookie Damjan Rudez, who brings with him a 3-point-shooting resume but missed both of his attempts.
Sloan and Stuckey will be entrusted with bringing everybody together in what must be a team effort.
The Pacers started slow against a lesser team, they turned the ball over too much, and the defense wasn’t what Vogel expects. But they turned it around in the second half, took care of the ball, started scoring and locking down on the Sixers defensively.
Philly was a blessing for opening night. Moving forward, it’s going to be more difficult.
“It’s one game out of 82,” Vogel said, “so I don’t think it means a lot. It’s important for our guys to feel what it’s like to win when we have the situation we have, the unique injury situation, it’s going to be a work in progress. But we’ve got to win games, no matter who’s out on court.”
Forward David West won’t be available for at least two more games. George Hill will hopefully be back in mid-November, and Watson ideally before that.
Until then, Sloan and Stuckey will play pivotal roles for the Pacers. Opening night made this perfectly clear.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.