INDIANAPOLIS -- It took a mere 16 seconds for the Indiana Pacers to establish the tone. The rest of the evening simply reinforced the point.
After Indiana’s Jeff Teague intercepted a pass from Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul during the opening possession, Teague launched the ball down court to a streaking Glenn Robinson III, who drew first blood for the Pacers with a dunk so forceful it stirred a team prone to complacency into a frenzy.
Bench players erupted from their seats, fans exhaled with rapture, and the game’s defining play was already in the books.
2-0, Indiana. Game over.
Or at least it might as well have been. By the time the Pacers ran the Clippers out of Bankers Life Fieldhouse by the score of 91-70, they had demonstrated time and again the type of team they can be when playing with energy, enthusiasm and effort.
Robinson, who finished with 17 points and six rebounds, got his first. Then it was time for center Al Jefferson, who sacrificed his hip while diving for a loose ball before scoring 16 points off the bench. Then it was Myles Turner, who shot 5-for-11 outside the paint, neutralizing L.A.’s rim-protecting big man DeAndre Jordan.
And that was just the offense.
Defensively, the Pacers were just as aggressive and focused. They out-rebounded the Clippers 52-40, forced them into 20 turnovers -- 11 in the first quarter -- and limited them to a season-low 31 percent shooting from the floor. Los Angeles attempted just 18 shots at the rim while the Pacers took 30. The Clippers settled. The Pacers attacked.
Indiana did the same thing Friday against Brooklyn, but that was against a 4-11 team. Los Angeles entered with a 14-3 record and the best one-two punch in the league. Their offense ranks third in the NBA while their defense is second. The Clippers are a title contender, but the Paul George-less Pacers made them look like the practice team.
“We’ve been talking more, communicating,” Robinson said of Indiana’s impressive play of late. “Everybody has each other’s back. Facing a team like (the Clippers), we knew we had to rebound and get in there and help our bigs out. We just were just a little bit more connected, a little bit more dialed in.”
Indiana is back to .500 (9-9) and is beginning to consistently play the way coach Nate McMillan envisioned -- injuries or not. The Pacers will have their apparent cohesion tested this week when they embark on a five game Western Conference road trip. George and backup center Kevin Seraphin have already been ruled out for Wednesday’s game in Portland.
Whether playing as a starter or finding his place among the reserves, Robinson will be instrumental in determining the outcome of Indy’s westward trek. The Pacers entered the season starving for more outside shooting and perimeter defense, both of which are provided by the Gary native. He is shooting 47 percent from downtown in his last six games (9-of-19) and is developing as a capable defender. At one point during Sunday’s win, he stayed in front of Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, keeping his feet on the court and and a hand in Crawford’s face to force an airball.
Robinson’s productivity has been a boon for Indiana and a surprise to some, he played just 11 minutes a game a season ago, often during blowouts. As for his teammates, they always expected it.
“It don’t surprise me,” Jefferson said. “Because when I got here this summer, you could just tell how much he improved. He had been working his ass off this summer, and I just know he needed that opportunity. He stayed ready.”
The ascension of Robinson is a good problem to have for McMillan. Once forwards George (ankle) and C.J. Miles (knee) return to the fold, Robinson will be back to third on the depth chart but will absolutely have a right to expect more minutes. He fits a need, is playing well and can contribute to a Pacers bench that has at times been anemic.
When asked about his role on a healthy Pacers team, Robinson said he will leave the personnel decisions to those above his pay grade. But for now, Robinson is playing the best ball of his career while helping Indiana mesh into the kind of team they expected to be all along.
“Win or lose, we want to be aggressive, we want to be active on the ball,” Robinson said. “Coach talked about making that our identity as far as pressuring teams, being active on the ball, creating some steals and getting out and running. I think we’ve got the perfect team for that.”
Maybe not a perfect team, but certainly a more effective one.