NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — The Indiana Pacers are closing in on the postseason, even if it appears they are crawling at times.
Despite scoring 15 first-quarter points, turning the ball over 18 times in the game and nearly blowing a late 11-point lead, the Pacers opened a two-game lead in the race for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference with a 102-98 victory over the New Jersey Nets on Monday.
“It’s a huge win for our ballclub,” Pacers interim coach Frank Vogel said. “That’s what we’re all working hard for.”
It didn’t look that way for the opening 21 minutes, and certainly not at the end when the Nets missed two 3-pointers in the final 15 seconds that would have tied the game.
“We didn’t want to let this one slip away,” said Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who had a game-high 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting from the field. “We had some mishaps toward the end of the game, but Darren (Collison) hit some big free throws and we came through with the win.”
Collison, who had a game-high 12 assists, scored nine of his 15 points in the final 2:24 to protect a lead that Danny Granger helped build by scoring 17 of his 20 in the second half.
“It’s very important,” said Granger, who missed his first seven shots from the field. “Road wins are very hard to come by in the NBA. To get one is great for us. We started off slow and we knew we needed this game.”
The win gave Indiana a 31-40 record. Charlotte (28-41) and Milwaukee (28-41) are tied for ninth, with the Bobcats playing host to Indiana on Wednesday. The Pacers are 3-0 against Charlotte this season.
“It’s huge,” Vogel said. “We’ve got a chance to really put them at a disadvantage. … It would be like a four-game lead with only 10 to go. It’s a great opportunity for us.”
The other good piece of news for the Pacers is that they play seven of their final 11 games at home.
Brook Lopez had 20 points to lead the Nets, who saw Sundiata Gaines and Sasha Vujacic miss tying 3-point attempts in the final 15 seconds.
Gaines finished with a career-high 18 points, while Vujacic and Jordan Farmar had 14 apiece for New Jersey, which lost its fourth in the row.
“We started off well and then we were searching for somebody to get it going in the second half,” Vujacic said. “We probably started a little too late. We gave them the momentum and they didn’t give us back the momentum.”
The Nets played without point guard Deron Williams, who missed his second straight game with a wrist injury.
The final three minutes were wild with the Pacers seemingly putting the game away when Collison converted a three-point play to open a 94-83 lead 2:24 to go.
Anthony Morrow hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to eight. After Josh McRoberts (14 points) hit a shot in the lane for Indiana, Vujacic hit a 3-pointer after New Jersey got an offensive rebound following a miss free throw by Lopez, cutting the margin to 96-90.
After Collison made two free throws with 1:20 to go, the Nets came up with four more points. Morrow hit the first of two free throws and Vujacic nailed another 3-pointer after New Jersey got the offensive rebound, making it a four-point game.
Collison missed a jumper and Gaines was fouled hard by McRoberts. He made one of two free throws to cut the lead to 98-95 with 40.5 seconds to go.
After Hibbert missed a jump hook, the Nets had their chances to tie it, but Gaines missed a long 3-pointer and Vujacic had his 3-pointer come up short.
Gaines said his shot felt good. Vujacic wasn’t happy with his attempt.
“I didn’t have my legs under me and the ball came out weird,” Vujacic said. “I probably miss that shot one in 10, and I am just frustrated I missed that one.”
Collison then iced the game with four free throws.
The Pacers, who were blown out at Memphis on Saturday night, looked listless for most of the first half. They were down by 12 with 3:03 left in the first half when they suddenly woke up.
Hibbert scored five points and Granger, who had ice packs around both knees and an ice pack on his right ankle after the game, nailed a 3-pointer in a 12-4 run that closed the gap to 44-40 at the half.
The Pacers scored the first nine points of the second half with Hibbert, who was limited to two points in a foul-plagued game Saturday, scoring twice inside and Tyler Hansbrough converting a three-point play.
Notes: The Pacers’ 15 first-quarter points were the fewest New Jersey allowed in the opening quarter this season. Oklahoma City had 16 on Dec. 1. … Nets rookie F Damion James missed the game with a sore right foot. … Indiana did not commit a foul in the third quarter. … The most consecutive double-doubles in a season by a Nets player is 13, by Buck Williams, during the 1982-83 season.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)