Pacers pull even with Nets for playoff spot

Indiana overcomes Russell Westbrook's career-high 54 points for a much-needed home victory. But Brooklyn still owns the tiebreaker for a final playoff spot with two games remaining.

Russell Westbrook couldn’t have played with more desire, but the Indiana Pacers showed Sunday night that they’re just as desperate to make the NBA playoffs.

The Pacers overcame Westbrook’s career-high 54 points to defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder 116-104 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and pull even with the Brooklyn Nets at 37-43 for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.

The Nets have the head-to-head tiebreaker with two regular-season games remaining. And they’re at home for those two games, against Chicago and Orlando. The Pacers host Washington Tuesday and are at Memphis Wednesday.

In a rollercoaster ride of a season which has forced the Pacers to overcome a combined 214 games lost to injury, coach Frank Vogel’s team displayed more resilience in this late-season push to try to make the postseason for a fifth consecutive year. A fifth consecutive win was one of the more impressive considering the Thunder (43-37) are tied with New Orleans for the Western Conference’s eighth playoff spot.

Both teams needed this one.

“That’s basketball, man,” Pacers guard C.J. Miles said in an on-court TV interview with Fox Sports Indiana. “When it means a lot, every play is big. … It’s not like the playoffs, but this is as close as it gets, games like this tonight, knowing we’ve got to win every one, man, and seeing all our guys being able to step up and make big plays all night is fun.”

The game was tied at 88 when Pacers reserve guard Rodney Stuckey hit a 3-pointer to start the home team on a pivotal 12-0 run. David West hit a shot, Miles made a free throw after Westbrook was called for a technical foul, George Hill converted a three-point play and then Miles sank a 3-pointer.

Miles led the Pacers with 30 points and also had 10 rebounds.

“He was great tonight,” Vogel said of Miles in his postgame interview televised by Fox Sports Indiana. “He knocked down a lot of big shots, timely shots, really.”

But back came the Thunder as Westbrook sank a 3-pointer and made a driving layup to close the late deficit to 102-99 with 3:12 remaining. Westbrook hit 21-of-43 shots from the field including 5-of-15 from 3-point range and 7-of-11 foul shots.

Westbook missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer with 2:36 remaining and then another jumper with 2:05 remaining. The Pacers closed it out from there as center Roy Hibbert converted a Hill behind-the-back pass for a dunk, the Thunder made one foul shot but Hill sank two.

Westbrook hit a 3-pointer to close the gap to 106-103, but Hill made a running jumper with 1:04 remaining. After Westbrook made one foul shot and missed one, Miles hit his sixth 3-pointer for a 111-104 lead with 48.6 seconds remaining.

“He’s good, man,” Miles said of Westbrook. “There’s a reason he’s been doing the numbers he’s been doing.”

“We didn’t really mind that he was really the only guy going,” added Vogel.

Miles made a foul shot and missed one, but Hibbert grabbed the offensive rebound. Hill was fouled and made two more foul shots with 34 seconds remaining to finish it. Hill finished with 19 points and Hibbert had 17 points along with 10 rebounds.

The Pacers finished the game with a 10-1 run.

The Thunder hurt themselves at the line with 17 misses in 28 free-throw attempts. The Pacers made 22-of-35.

Westbrook also might have jeopardized his team for the next game. His technical foul was the 16th of the season, and unless rescinded would mean he has to sit out one game.

The Thunder, like the Pacers, now need help. New Orleans has the tiebreaker on Oklahoma City.

Indiana will know if the playoff door is open when it plays the Washington Wizards Tuesday because the Nets host the Chicago Bulls (48-32) on Monday. It might come down to the next two days, considering the Nets’ final home game is against the lowly Magic (25-55).

“These guys have really stayed in the fight,” Vogel said of his Pacers. “They’ve had a great attitude and a great perspective on everything. We’ve never gotten down on ourselves. They just had the mind-set we were going got weather the storm early, stay in the fight and grind through all that stuff and hopefully overcome it in the end.”

The Boston Celtics (38-42) are one game ahead in seventh place, but they’ve won four in a row and would need to stumble in both of their remaining games versus the Toronto Raptors and at the Milwaukee Bucks for the Pacers to overtake them because the Celtics own the head-to-head tiebreaker.

“You get in the playoffs,” Vogel said, “you’ve got a chance to go somewhere.”

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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