The Indiana Pacers look like they’ve finally shaken their season-long struggle to win close games. That might not do them much good if they can’t stay competitive against the Western Conference-best Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers look to improve to 19-2 at Staples Center as they go for their eighth win in nine games overall Friday night against the Pacers.
Indiana (13-22) is stuck at the bottom of the Central Division in large part because of its inability to win tight games. The Pacers are 0-4 in overtime and were 3-11 in games decided by six points or fewer after dropping four straight by a combined 12 points from Dec. 23-30.
Indiana, though, has reversed its fortunes in January, opening the month 3-1 with wins by two, five and three points. Danny Granger made a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the Pacers a 113-110 road victory over Phoenix on Wednesday night.
“When I got that open look, I let it go,” said Granger, who scored 37 points with five 3-pointers. “I’m always confident it’s going in the hole. I got two screens and made the shot. This is a big momentum builder for us.”
Pacers coach Jim O’Brien thinks experience in close games has helped his young team take some big steps lately.
“We’ve won three out of the last four ballgames and they were all tight,” he said. “We’re learning by being in so many close games.”
The Pacers pulled off a close victory over the Lakers (28-6) in Indianapolis on Dec. 2, when Troy Murphy’s tip-in at the buzzer gave them a 118-117 win.
However, the Lakers - tied with Cleveland for the best record in the league - still present an enormous challenge, particularly at Staples Center, where they’ve won 18 of 20 games. Los Angeles, which leads the West in point differential at 9.3, is beating opponents by an average of 10.8 at home.
Though the Lakers lost their last home game 116-105 to New Orleans on Tuesday night, they rebounded with a 114-106 road victory over Golden State on Wednesday.
Pau Gasol, held to 10 points, eight rebounds and 3-for-8 shooting against the Hornets, was one point shy of a season high with 33 against the Warriors. He added a career high-tying 18 rebounds and went 12-for-21 from the field.
“I always like to bounce back aggressively after a game that I don’t consider satisfying for me,” Gasol said. “The positive thing we did tonight was throw the ball (into the low post) and go to work. You have to have balance in your game, and you have to take advantage of your strengths.”
The Lakers did that in their first game against the Pacers. They shot 51.3 percent from the field and had six players score in double figures, led by Kobe Bryant’s 28 points.
Los Angeles didn’t do its part on defense, however, giving up a season-high point total and getting outrebounded 50-41. Granger had 32 points in that game.
Granger, averaging 36.0 points over his last three games, should get plenty of help with Mike Dunleavy back from a knee injury that sidelined him for the first two months of the season. He had 14 points off the bench in his season debut Wednesday.
“It felt great to be back and to get a win and a win in that fashion is terrific,” said Dunleavy, Indiana’s second-leading scorer with 19.1 points per game last season. “We need to get some wins and to get this one tonight, we’ll take it. … To win a game like that is like a cherry on a sundae.”
Including the 2000 NBA finals, Indiana has lost all 12 games it has played against the Lakers at Staples Center.