A rash of injuries and suspensions had the Pacers reeling for more than a month. Wednesday’s loss to Philadelphia dropped Indiana to 7-14 since the All-Star break.
Despite the slump, there have been some signs of life. At home, the Pacers trounced Utah and Boston and stormed back from a huge deficit to beat Memphis.
On Friday, Indiana destroyed Chicago, 140-89, the most lopsided game in the NBA this season. And the Pacers clamped down on the Suns, holding them under 37 percent (31-of-84) from the field.
“We’re starting to get our defensive intensity back,” said O’Neal, who made 11-of-16 shots and grabbed 11 rebounds. “Mentally, we’re focused on playing better defense. On defense we were very good. We just had to slow down Marbury; that was the key for us.”
The Pacers limited Marbury, an All-Star point guard and Phoenix’s leading scorer, to 10 points on 4-of-19 shooting. He missed all five of his 3-pointers.
“Defensively we were pretty good,” Pacer coach Isiah Thomas said. “We stopped them from scoring and contained their penetrations.”
Marbury was shut down by Pacers physical point guard Erick Strickland, who collected 16 points and seven assists.
“He’s done an excellent job,” Thomas said. “The thing you love about the guy is he plays so hard. He gives all he can on every single play. He’s been a huge plus for us.”
“Strickland did a hell of a job on him. He’s a pit bull,” Suns coach Frank Johnson said. “Marbury’s our primary scorer and it’s rare when we win when he shoots like that.”
The Pacers are one of the more physical teams in the NBA. Their style of play was not lost on the Suns, who committed 17 turnovers.
“Defensively they banged us and took us out of some stuff,” said Johnson, whose team fell back into a tie with Houston for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. “Turnovers really hurt us tonight.”
“The East Coast plays hard,” said Suns forward Shawn Marion, who committed seven turnovers. “Detroit’s a real physical team, but tonight it was a little more physical. After 73 games, you start to feel the bumps and bruises. It seems like every time you get hit, it hurts a little bit more.”
Ron Artest scored 20 points for the Pacers (43-30), who clinched their sixth straight playoff berth. They remained fourth in the Eastern Conference, one-half game behind Philadelphia.
Artest has missed 11 games this season due to suspension, including two last week as a result of exceeding the flagrant foul limit. Thomas believes it is no coincidence that his team has won the last two games with Artest in the lineup.
“I think he’s starting to get his game back in terms of being sharp offensively and defensively,” Thomas said. “When he’s engaged, there aren’t a whole lot of players better at that position. He takes us to a whole different level.”
Marion had 22 points and 15 rebounds for Phoenix, which fell behind for good with a sloppy finish to the first half.
O’Neal, who scored 13 points in the first quarter, converted an alley-oop layup that gave Indiana a 43-42 lead with 2:17 left in the first half and started a 9-2 run.
“We had three straight turnovers,” Johnson said. “That’s not how you go into a locker room.”
The teams traded baskets to open the third quarter before the Pacers put together a 13-2 surge. Reggie Miller’s three free throws widened the lead to 65-48 with 6:50 remaining. Phoenix got no closer than seven points thereafter.