KRAVITZ: Surging Pacers keep playoff hopes alive

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Bob Kravitz

They could have tanked, could have gone south a long, long time ago. Who could have blamed the Pacers for thinking NBA Draft Lottery when everything was going sideways? Seventy-six games without Paul George. George Hill missed 39 games. David West missed 16 games. And everybody else, it seemed, had some kind of annoying injury that forced them out of the lineup a handful of games.

The fates, it seemed, had conspired to render this season one giant, unhappy mulligan.

This team doesn't know how to tank, though, and that starts with Larry Bird and Frank Vogel, and if it means missing the Lottery, well, they're just fine with that. There's a gritty nobility to the way the Pacers are playing now, winners of five straight now after a 116-104 survival victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

It's weird, isn't it? I like this team better now than I liked the team that limped and groused its way to the finish the second half of last year. This group genuinely seems to enjoy one another's company. They battle. They fight to the finish and have made the last week of the season important. And who could have imagined that when things were going so badly early in the season? They may not make the playoffs – more on that later – but the Pacers look now like a playoff-worthy team.

“If we make it to the postseason, we can be a frightening team,'' C.J. Miles said.

Well, they can be competitive. I can't see them pushing either Atlanta or Cleveland more than five games, maybe six, but at least they've got a chance now, having won five straight games and 22 of their last 35.

It comes down to this: The Nets and the Pacers are now tied in the standings at 37-43. So basically the Pacers have to win one more game down this two-game stretch than Brooklyn. The long and short of it being, become a Chicago Bulls fan, as much as that may pain you. The Bulls play Brooklyn Monday at the Barclays Center. The Nets then finish up with Orlando in Brooklyn. The Pacers have the Wizards Tuesday (win) and then a brutal season finale at Memphis, where the Grizzlies are desperately trying to hold off the Los Angeles Clippers for the second spot in the Western Conference.

“It sucks that we don't control our own destiny,'' George Hill said. “But that's the way it is. We've just got to keep on winning.''

Hill was asked if he'll make a point of watching the Bulls-Nets game tomorrow night.

He smiled.

“Nah, I don't watch basketball,'' he said.

He will probably watch a fishing show. Or something on Home and Garden TV. Seriously.

C.J. Miles, who tossed up a career-high 30 points, said he'll definitely be watching.

“You've got the NBA League Pass?'' I asked him.

“Of course, of course,'' he said with a smile.

The key to this victory? Well, there were two keys, and one of them is something that might not make sense. Russell Westbrook scored a career-high 54 points, but he got them on – get this – 43 field-goal attempts. It's probably just as well that he'll be ineligible for Oklahoma City's next game because of his 16th technical foul this season, which will result in a one-game suspension. He'll need the time to ice down that right arm.

Westbrook was electric, finishing with 54 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, but he was all the Thunder had going for them.

Just don't ask Westbrook, a famously prickly sort, if he hoisted up too many shots Sunday night, as one reporter did.

“I don't really give a damn what nobody thinks, to tell you the truth,'' he said. “I don't really care. Every night I compete harder than anybody else in the league.''

It would have been one thing if Westbrook had gone for 54 and had some company in the scoring column. But Frank Vogel was just fine with 54 points on 43 shots, especially when Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter were the only two Thunder players to finish in double figures. You want to shoot, Russell? Go ahead, shoot. Shoot some more. Shoot again.

“We didn't really mind that [Westbrook] was the only guy going,'' Vogel said. “A lot of times, guys are taking all the shots and nobody else is in a rhythm, you end up winning games like that. Obviously, that's what the first half looked like; he scored 29 but we were winning. We mixed our coverages some, tried to take the ball out of his hands some, but we didn't want to overreact to it. If you want to go out and shoot it 43 times, we'll still go out and win.''

Someone mentioned to Hill that maybe it wasn't such a bad thing giving up 54 points when it requires 43 shots, many of them heat checks. Hill wasn't having any of it.

“I started to question myself,'' he said as he slowly dressed at his locker and joked with reporters. “Am I a good defender? That doesn't feel too good, giving up 54.''

In Hill's defense – yes, there was defense – it wasn't all against him, and actually, late in the game, he did a terrific job making life difficult for Westbrook.

The other key, well, that had nothing to do with the Pacers: The Thunder made just 11-of-28 free throws. And this is not a terrible free-throw shooting team. They just were Sunday night.

In the end, you just hope the Pacers don't run out of season. When this team is healthy, well, they're pretty darned good. Consider, with Hill out of the lineup, they went 12-27. With George out, they went 33-43. With West out, they went 6-10.

With the whole group together, and even with Paul George still operating at about 50 percent efficiency, this is a playoff-worthy team. It's why it makes sense for Bird to do little more than tweak this lineup heading into next season. He's got one more year with Hibbert and David West, both playing their final option year. Make one last run at something special with this nucleus. Then the salary cap goes up, way up, and it's fair to figure Hibbert and West will be gone, leaving plenty of money to fully rebuild the roster.

In the meantime, though, you get the sense that this city has embraced this group, despite the sub-standard record. Crowds have been routinely strong, including another sellout Sunday night. They know the Pacers have never given up on this season, and they're not giving up on it, either.

“That's been the great thing about this group, everybody's come to work every day,'' Miles said. “It's been tough at times, don't get me wrong. It's been tough and frustrating but I never doubted the fact that everybody wanted to win basketball games. And that's fun to be around, too, knowing no matter the score, no matter the record, these guys have your back.''

After 213 games lost to injury, after 14 different starting lineups, there are two games left in the season for the Indiana Pacers, and the playoffs are still a possibility. When it all began and then continued so badly, could you have asked for any more?

I'll answer that: No. Absolutely not.