The team leader who personifies toughness was reduced to a spectator by a sprained right ankle until Friday night, when he made a triumphant 18-point return in the Pacers’ 98-83 victory over the Orlando Magic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
The Pacers (7-9) won at Miami, Chicago and Dallas while West, among others, watched. While so many wrote this season off after two-time All-Star Paul George broke his right leg on Aug. 1, the team has managed to stay competitive.
“These guys compete and play hard,” West said.
That’s why he was so anxious to join them. They were playing with the grit the 12th-year forward brings to the floor each night.
“They have a fight about ‘em,” he said, “which is one of the reasons why I was anxious to get back out there. You appreciate that. You appreciate how hard they’ve been competing, just going out and giving their all, and it’s worked out.”
West and backup point guard C.J. Watson (right foot) made their season debuts against the Magic. West was so excited, he scored his team’s first two baskets, but had to sit down after about five minutes when he picked up his second foul.
Watson scored nine points and had four assists.
“It was definitely nice to see those guys back out there,” coach Frank Vogel said.
West has admired how a team missing so many regulars has bonded together. He’s seen reserve forward Lavoy Allen emerge as one of the team’s best rebounders. Allen had 10 points and 12 rebounds in this game.
He’s seen forward Solomon Hill come into his own as a promising second-year player. The game has slowed down for Hill, West observed, and the guard-forward is making plays on a consistent basis in addition to playing steady defense.
The Pacers are still missing two key starters in center Roy Hibbert, who missed his third consecutive game with a sprained left ankle, and point guard George Hill, who has yet to play in the regular season after suffering a torn quad in preseason.
That’s what made watching this past month particularly difficult. Indiana had its share of close games that perhaps would have gone differently if West was out there. The Pacers had a five-point lead with 7:16 remaining at defending NBA champion San Antonio Wednesday night before faltering late.
“Particularly a couple of the close games that we’ve lost, you always feel like you can be the difference maker,” West said. “Again, these guys compete and play hard. They play at a competitive level that’s always going to give you a chance to win. That’s a good point for us to be at.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.