A soft stretch in the schedule has allowed the Indiana Pacers to put together their longest winning streak since the opening week of the season.
A matchup Friday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, who own the worst record in the NBA, gives Indiana a good chance at extending that streak to the longest it’s been in nearly two years.
The Pacers (14-12) are looking to win four straight for the first time since Feb. 1-10, 2006. They never won more than three consecutive games in 2006-07, and their only three-game run this season came during a 3-0 start.
During its recent streak, Indiana has beaten three of the league’s weakest teams: New York and Miami - which have the two worst records in the Eastern Conference - and Philadelphia (10-15).
Leading scorer Jermaine O’Neal, however, believes the Pacers are doing more than just taking advantage of their opponents’ struggles.
“The team is beginning to learn our new style and play hard for Coach (Jim) O’Brien,” he said. “We’re beginning to understand both ends of the court. … He has done a great job of instilling confidence in us as a team and individuals.”
The Pacers are leading the East in scoring at 104.4 points per game, but it was their defense that was most impressive in a 102-85 rout of the 76ers on Wednesday.
The 85 points tied the fewest Indiana has allowed this year. Opponents are averaging 103.8 points against the Pacers this season - fifth-highest in the league.
Marquis Daniels led the Pacers with 26 points off the bench Wednesday. He was given a chance to start in place of Jamaal Tinsley, who was out with a deep thigh bruise, but Daniels preferred to stick with his usual role. He was 11-of-17 from the field, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range.
“I asked him if he wanted to start and he said no,” O’Brien said. “That’s very unselfish of him. He cares about finishing games, not who starts.”
The Timberwolves (3-21), meanwhile, have lost their last six, including a 111-98 defeat to Golden State at home on Wednesday. The skid is Minnesota’s longest since it dropped seven in a row to end last season.
Coach Randy Wittman has been particularly frustrated with how flat his team has come out in the second half lately. The Timberwolves were outscored 37-17 in the third quarter Wednesday and have been outscored 108-72 in the period over their last four games. In three of those games, they led at halftime, including on Wednesday.
“You cannot squander (a lead) when a team comes out,” Wittman said. “You have to man up. At some point, we have to stand up and say enough is enough.”
The Timberwolves, who are off to their worst start in the franchise’s 19 seasons, had just 10 players available Wednesday and Wittman only used eight. Al Jefferson had 24 points and 14 rebounds while Rashad McCants, who started in place of Marko Jaric (flu), added 23 points and six assists.
The Timberwolves have won three of four against the Pacers and two straight in Minneapolis.