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PHOENIX — Beating Cleveland has not been an issue for Indiana, as the Pacers stopped the Cavaliers on Friday for the third time in three meetings this season.
Recovering from a date with LeBron James, however, has been more problematic.
The Pacers went on a four-game losing streak after they beat the three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Cavaliers on Nov. 1, dropping them to a season-low two games below .500. They were a bit better following a Dec. 8 victory over Cleveland, beating Denver in overtime before losing the next two.
Indiana (22-20) will attempt to turn that trend around starting with a game against Phoenix on Sunday, the first of the Pacers’ five-game road trip.
The Suns (16-27) will look to bounce back from a 112-95 trouncing by the Houston Rockets, who rolled to a victory on Friday despite James Harden’s continued absence.
The Pacers overcame a 22-point deficit in their 97-95 victory over Cleveland, handing the Cavaliers their third straight loss.
Darren Collison had 22 points, Victor Oladipo had 19, Lance Stephenson had 16 points and 11 rebounds and Domas Sabonis had 15 rebounds, one short of his career high.
“It feels good, but it’s a long season,” Stephenson told reporters. “They’re a tough team but we came out and played smart defense and made the right plays.”
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Stephenson also baited James into a retaliatory shove that resulted in a technical foul with 7:53 remaining. Stephenson instigated the action when he thumbed James in the side.
“It’s hard to get into his head, but tonight was (different),” said Stephenson, who played the final 17 1/2 minutes when the Pacers went to a small lineup after Sabonis picked up his fourth foul. “Just playing against the best player in the league, trying to win against them. There are a lot of fans coming out to support him, so I just try to get his fans mad too.”
Indiana has received strong contributions from Oladipo and Sabonis, the players it received from Oklahoma City for free-agent-to-be Paul George over the summer. Oladipo is averaging 24.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists, and second-year player Sabonis has broken out, averaging 12.5 points and 8.0 rebounds.
The Suns’ Devin Booker has taken his game up another notch this season, averaging 24.9 points after a 27-point, nine-assist game against the Rockets on Friday. Booker’s role as a facilitator/scorer continues to grow, and his nine assists Friday were one short of a season high.
“Just as a point guard, he’s setting us up, he’s getting us into our offense,” Phoenix interim coach Jay Triano said.
“That’s a lot for him to do. We’re asking him to be a big scorer, to set everyone up, and organize the team. It’s a little bit of a new role for him, but we’re pleased with the progress he’s making.”
The Suns have received solid recent contributions from second-year forward Dragan Bender, who has received more than 30 minutes in each of the last two games because of a hip injury to starter Marquese Chriss.
Bender, who at 7-foot-1 is comfortable on the perimeter, has 34 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and five steals in the last two games while making 9 of 14 3-point attempts. Chriss is not expected to play against Indiana, and reserve small forward Josh Jackson (hip) is questionable.
Indiana center Myles Turner has missed two games with an elbow injury. His status for Sunday is unknown.