The NBA’s hottest team continues to sizzle, so much so that, suddenly, the Indiana Pacers are in the hunt for sixth place.
Not that seventh place is secure, but the Pacers ran their winning streak to seven games with a 109-103 overtime victory over the team in front of them in the Eastern Conference standings, the Milwaukee Bucks, Thursday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
While it wasn’t a playoff game, the competitiveness with which these teams fought had an announced crowd of 15,279 reacting to every ebb and flow. That the Pacers (30-34) prevailed over the Bucks (34-31) closes the margin between those teams to 3.5 games. Indiana has 18 games remaining, including a March 26 visit to Milwaukee, which has 17 games remaining.
Pacers players don’t check out the day-to-day standings because head coach Frank Vogel reminds them of where they stand, and it’s posted in the locker room. After this night, the Pacers are one game ahead of the Miami Heat (29-35) and 1 1/2 games up on the Charlotte Hornets (28-35) and 2 1/2 games above the Boston Celtics (27-36), who visit Saturday night. The Brooklyn Nets (25-38) are 4 1/2 games back.
Yeah, it’s a logjam. And that’s why beating the Bucks was important.
The Pacers continued not just their winning streak but in each of the victories they’ve limited the opponent to under 40 percent shooting, the longest such streak in franchise history. Milwaukee made 35-of-91 shots (38.5 percent).
“Defensively, we’re talking and helping each other out to try and be the No. 1 defense in the league, which is what we want to be,” said Pacers guard C.J. Miles. Indiana ranks third in the NBA at 96 points allowed per game, just ahead of the Bucks in fourth at 96.6.
Not that the Pacers blistered the nets, but they hit clutch shots when needed, especially in overtime when four-of-six attempts went down to the Bucks’ four-of-14. Indiana finished 39-of-79 (49.4 percent) from the floor.
Guard Rodney Stuckey resumed his role as catalyst off the bench. After scoring a season-high 34 points in Tuesday’s home blowout of Orlando, he followed that up with a team-high 25 points including four in overtime. Reserve forward Luis Scola was also solid with 17 points and 15 rebounds, the most boards he’s had since he was with Phoenix in 2013.
“It’s a great win for us,” Stuckey said. “We know that we can play those type of grind it out games. We competed.”
The Pacers trailed by a dozen after one quarter, trimmed that to two by halftime, took an eight point lead into the final quarter and the Bucks battled back to force overtime. Milwaukee’s defensive length often forced Indiana into mistakes as the home team committed a season-high 20 turnovers.
The Bucks took it to the Pacers for much of the night. Literally, the visitors did. They kept driving to the basket and drawing fouls. Milwaukee hit 29-of-36 free throws. When Michael Carter-Williams wasn’t scoring a game-high 28 points, someone was hitting foul shots.
“We took it as a playoff game, that’s the way we wanted to come in,” said Miles, who scored 14 points. “It was a big win for us, a team we’re chasing in the standings. It was physical, they played hard, we played hard. We were just able to make some plays down the stretch.”
The Pacers are 13-2 since Feb. 4. Consider that on Jan. 23, this team was 15-30 and going nowhere fast. Fans were talking about the Pacers tanking to get a high draft pick. They’ve gone 15-4 since.
Point guard George Hill, who like Scola had 17 points, continues to make a huge difference. The Pacers are 14-3 with Hill in the starting lineup. And it’s not always his scoring. It’s how he helps his teammates stay together and share the ball.
Stuckey does the same when he comes off the bench. That’s why Scola is playing so well, as is guard C.J. Watson, who scored 10 points. The Pacers’ reserves had a 52-10 edge in scoring.
“It’s the team moving better, playing with better energy, better momentum,” Scola said. “We’re getting more things accomplished and winning more games, moving up in the standings. A lot of good things today. Let’s see if we can keep it going.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.