INDIANAPOLIS – Indiana spent the offseason investing heavily in its bench.
On Wednesday night, the Pacers got the payoff.
Luis Scola, Donald Sloan and Lance Stephenson combined for all 12 points in a decisive fourth-quarter run, sending the still unbeaten Pacers past division rival Bulls 97-80 and to its best start since 1971-72.
“They brought all of us in to make the bench a little deeper than it was last year, and I think the guys on the bench know their role,” Sloan said. “So it just fits.”
The NBA’s last unbeaten team is 5-0 for the first time in Indiana’s NBA history. Indiana can tie its franchise record, 6-0 set by the 1970-71 ABA powerhouse, when Toronto visits Friday night.
Wednesday’s victory may have been the most impressive yet.
Again, the Pacers played short-handed. Starting point guard George Hill missed his third straight game with a sore left hip, and swingman Danny Granger still has not played because of a strained left calf.
Again, they had to rally from a halftime deficit.
And again, they found a way to close it out.
Paul George, the league’s second-leading scorer, finished with 21 points, six rebounds and three assists. David West had 17 points and 13 rebounds, both season-highs. Roy Hibbert had eight points, 10 rebounds and added five more blocks to his league-leading total.
But Scola, Sloan and Stephenson changed the script.
After missing his first seven shots and scoring just three points in the first three quarters, Stephenson had 12 points in the final 12 minutes including two big 3-pointers during the decisive stretch. He finished with 15 points. Scola added 12, none more critical than the consecutive baskets he made midway through the fourth. Sloan scored nine points including the 17-footer that tied the score midway through the fourth.
“We just play hard. We feel like that we going to bring it every night on the defensive end, offensive end and we going to find a way to get that ‘W,’” Stephenson said. “And we did that tonight.”
It sure wasn’t easy against their fiercest division rival.
Derrick Rose and Luol Deng scored 17 points each to lead the Bulls (1-3), though Rose scored only three points in 12 minutes in the second half and he spent the first half of the fourth quarter on the bench.
“A couple players on their team made big plays, great second-chance efforts with the rebounding and Lance, I think, played great for them tonight knocking down shots and just playing hard,” Rose said before answering a question about his minutes. “I’ll leave that up to Tibs, he’s the coach on this team, so I’ll let him coach.”
Perhaps Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau thought it was better to protect Rose’s surgically repaired left knee in this rugged game that looked more like a boxing title bout.
Bodies repeatedly crashed hard to the court all night, and the game got progressively more physical with each quarter.
Pacers backup center Ian Mahinmi left late in the third quarter with a sprained left ankle and did not return. Chicago guard Kirk Hinrich was called for a flagrant foul in the fourth. There was a resounding thud inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse, too, when Chicago Joakim Noah hit the court while trying to protect his own basket late in the fourth.
But until the stretch, neither team could get the upper hand.
After leading 25-19 at the end of one quarter and trailing 43-37 at halftime, it looked like Indiana might break away after starting the third quarter on a 10-2 run and then coming up with a 9-2 spurt to regain the lead. When Sloan hit a 3-pointer with 1:12 left in the third, Indiana suddenly led 63-55.
It didn’t last.
Hinrich answered with a 3, Deng hit an 11-foot jumper, drawing a foul on George, and Pacers coach Frank Vogel was called for a technical. Chicago hit both free throws to make it 63-62. The Bulls pulled even on Mike Dunleavy’s 3 early in the fourth and regained the lead, 67-65, on Deng’s midrange jumper with 8:38 to play.
Sloan tied the score at 67, Stephenson gave Indiana the lead with a 3, Scola followed that with consecutive baskets and Stephenson closed the run with another 3 to make it 77-69 with 5:16 to go.
Chicago never seriously challenged again as the Pacers pulled away.
“We’ve had a good feel since he got here. The guy’s just a winner,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said of Scola. “He just goes out there and knows how to play this game. He’s one of the best players in the history of international basketball and one of the best power forwards in the game. We’ve got him as a backup power forward. It’s quite a luxury.”
NOTES: Rose opened the game with his best offensive half of the season, going 5 of 9 from the field with 12 points and one 3 in the first two quarters. ... The Bulls fell to 6-22 all-time at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. ... Chicago’s Carlos Boozer came into the game shooting an NBA-best 65.9 percent from the field and averaging 22.3 points but went just 3 of 10 with six points. ... The Pacers follow this back-to-back stretch with three games in the next five days.