The Indiana Pacers were seemingly in rebuilding mode when they traded Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder last year.
Not only are the Pacers not rebuilding, they are thriving. Indiana (46-31) is solidly in the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference with a realistic shot at moving up to the third seed before the season ends in nine days.
“We’re showing growth,” Indiana coach Nate McMillan said after Sunday’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Pacers have won five in a row and can sweep their four-game Western Conference road trip with a victory over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night.
Indiana is led by Victor Oladipo, one of the assets acquired from Oklahoma City in the deal for George. He came up big again Sunday, scoring 30 points as the Pacers rallied from 16 down to win by seven.
“Just trying to be effective and make the right play,” he told reporters Sunday.
That has been Denver’s formula in rallying to win its past two games in overtime. The Nuggets lost a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead in Oklahoma City on Friday, rallied in the final minute and won 126-125 in overtime.
Denver topped that Sunday, coming from eight down against Milwaukee in the last minute to force overtime and win by three points.
“We can beat anybody,” Nuggets guard Jamal Murray said after the game. “We’ve just got to handle the runs better.”
The nail-biting wins kept Denver (42-35) in the Western Conference playoff picture. With five games left, the Nuggets are a game behind the New Orleans Pelicans for the eighth spot and 1 1/2 games behind the Minnesota Timberwolves for seventh. They have two games against the Timberwolves.
“Every win is huge, but the last two games, and the fashion that we have won, has really been incredible, which really speaks to the growth of this team,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the win over the Bucks.
The way Denver has won the last two games prepares it well for the game against Indiana. In their only other meeting, the Nuggets lost an eight-point lead in the final 2:54 and fell in overtime. Oladipo had 47 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
It’s exactly the type of game Denver has succeeded in lately, but it’s not how it wants to win. The Nuggets have been prone to lapses in the second half, including Sunday, when they led by nine at halftime and were outscored 38-16 in the third quarter.
They got it together just in time, but it’s not good for the heart.
“I know in the NBA you can go on crazy runs,” forward Torrey Craig said. “Anything can happen.”
Craig has been getting more playing time with injuries to guard Gary Harris and forward Wilson Chandler. Harris (right knee sprain) has been out for eight games and could miss the rest of the regular season. Chandler is recovering from a nasal fracture.
Denver didn’t practice Monday and so there was no update on Chandler’s availability for Tuesday. With or without him, a win over the Pacers keeps the Nuggets on track to make the playoffs for the first time in eight years.
“You always want to control your own destiny,” Malone said.