The late-season mantra has shifted to win-or-else for the Indiana Pacers.
It might just take the Pacers winning out to make the playoffs and they performed as expected in a 102-86 victory over the lowly New York Knicks Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Indiana (35-43) swept the four-game season series from the Knicks (15-63) to stay one game behind the Boston Celtics (36-42) and Brooklyn Nets (36-42) in the hunt for the final two playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. The Miami Heat (35-43) are also tied with the Pacers, although Indiana has the tiebreaker edge that team.
Four regular-season games remain, three of them next week against playoff-caliber teams in Oklahoma City, Washington and Memphis, so the Pacers’ sense of urgency has never been greater.
Despite the unsettling news that reserve forward Chris Copeland had been stabbed earlier in the morning after an altercation outside a New York City nightclub, the team stayed focused on the task at hand. Copeland was injured in the abdomen and left elbow, underwent surgery and was expected to stay in town for a few days, head coach Frank Vogel said before the game.
“A lot of adversity today,” the coach said in a postgame interview televised by Fox Sports Indiana, “but a lot of adversity we’ve faced all season. We’ve shown a lot of character and I’m proud of the performance today.”
Point guard George Hill scored a game-high 20 points and was one of six Pacers in double digits as the visitors took a 12-point lead in the first quarter and never trailed.
“It’s win or go home for us, so we’ve got to continue to take care of business and have fun while we’re doing it,” Hill said in an on-court TV interview with Fox Sports Indiana.
Hill hit seven-of-11 shots and had six rebounds and five assists.
“When everyone is playing for each other,” he said, “we’re a hard team to beat.”
Two-time All-Star Paul George, in his second game back from missing most of the season with a broken right leg, scored 10 points off the bench in 15 minutes, 21 seconds of playing time. Guard C.J. Miles had 13 points while forward David West, center Roy Hibbert and reserve forward Luis Scola each added 11.
“It’s an uphill battle. We’re going to need some losses from some other teams. We can’t control that,” Vogel said. “We’ve just got to control what we can control and that’s taking care of our own business and get another win.”
The Pacers dominated inside with a 50-22 points-in-the-paint advantage and outrebounded the Knicks 54-34. They also had 23 assists to the Knicks’ 13.
After allowing more than 100 points in nine of 12 games, the Pacers have stiffened on defense by limiting the last three opponents to under 90 points, all victories.
Indiana also finished 6-0 in their 1990s retro Flo-Jo uniforms, designed by the late track and field star Florence Griffith Joyner.
The Pacers visit the Detroit Pistons (30-48) Friday night before returning to Bankers Life Fieldhouse Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder (42-36). Indiana hosts the Washington Wizards (45-33) on Tuesday and conclude the regular season at the Memphis Grizzlies (53-25) on Wednesday.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.