Dec 18, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel (left) talks with point guard George Hill (3) and shooting guard Lance Stephenson (1) during the second half against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Miami won 97-94. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana Pacers: 3 Things We've Learned Thus Far

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When Larry Bird decided to support his home state and take over the presidential reigns of the Indiana Pacers, the rebuilding process was in full swing.  With the 10th pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, the question that Bird and Pacers’ management debated was “Paul George or Ed Davis?”

The Pacers looked deeply at both talents before making a decision, eventually realizing that the raw athletic skills and defensive mindset of George put the 6’9″ sophomore over the top.

Give a round of applause for the front office on that move, as George is the only player from the 2010 draft class that will receive MVP votes this season, barring John Wall doesn’t explode and launch the Wizards into a top Eastern Conference team (which comically isn’t even out of the question).

The Pacers are now 21-5, and hold the league’s third-best record, but remain first in the Eastern Conference.  What are three major observations that are apparent this season?

1.  They Actually Care About The Regular Season

One of the biggest problems fans and analysts have had with the NBA through the years is the length of the regular season.  In the NFL, 16 games ensures that each and every week, your team must bring it, or playoff chances can be jeopardized.  The NBA schedule, comprised of 82 games and a grueling six months, is questioned due to the lack of importance of each game.  A regular season game in December can be a “statement game,” but means absolutely nothing in reality.

Except for these Pacers.

Pacers

Dec 18, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers power forward David West (21) reacts during the second half against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Miami won 97-94. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

From training camp, Indiana has had one long-term goal pounded into their heads:  Secure the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.  Of course, the image of hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy in June is their ultimate dream, but can’t be their specific goal just yet.

Head coach Frank Vogel, along with each and every returning player from last year’s roster, believe if they would have had home-court advantage in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, it wouldn’t have been the Miami Heat facing the San Antonio Spurs in June.

That’s just what the No. 1 seed entails; home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs.

With every regular season game comes either a +1 in the win or loss column and indeed does damage to the standings.  The Pacers are in a race with Miami, whether the Heat want to admit it or not, for the best record in the Eastern Conference.  The difference between Indiana and Miami this season is that Vogel’s Pacers are much better disciplined and won’t take games (home or away) against bottom feeders lightly.  That is what will allow Indiana to win 65+ games by mid-April, as one thing we have seen from Miami is their tendency to play as if its a “night off” and think they can turn the switch on whenever they want.  Every game matters, and the Pacers know it’s what can make or break a title run.

The Pacers are currently 20-5 overall, and 11-1 at home (Bankers Life Fieldhouse).  Reasonable to assume any team in the league will be nervous trying to win a playoff series that runs through Indianapolis?

2.  The Bench Just Got Better

Heading into this season, it was widely believed the Pacers’ bench would be one of the top two or three benches in the NBA.  Luis Scola, Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson were thought to bring an enormous lift that would bring their offensive firepower up substantially.

Come to find out, Copeland has only played in 12 of 26 games this season, at 6.5 minutes per game.  Vogel hasn’t felt comfortable giving him more opportunities in the rotation and Copeland is completely fine with that because he was used to some of the same treatment in New York.

Oct 5, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers small forward Danny Granger (33) goes up for a shot against Chicago Bulls shooting guard Mike Dunleavy (34) at Bankers life Fieldhouse. Bulls beat Pacers 82-76. Mandatory Credit: Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Entering Friday’s game vs. Houston, the bench production has been low (as a total unit) for the Pacers, averaging just 23.8 points a night.  This ranks them 27th in the league in bench scoring, which is abnormal for a team atop of their conference.

The return of Danny Granger, a former All-Star that has led the franchise in scoring five previous seasons, likely solves any and all problems with their second unit.  The Pacers have played outstandingly without Granger, but that can be expected when they have had to do without him in 101 of the last 107 regular season games played.

On Friday, Granger returned to the lineup and played 22 minutes, scoring five points.  He shot just 1-of-7 from the field, including 1-of-4 from beyond the arc.  Don’t put any stock in this performance, considering it’s going to take him time to get acclimated with this group.  Keep in mind, things have changed since Granger was an effective star for Indiana.  The team has grown together, and now it’s important for Granger to know he doesn’t have to score 20+ each game for them to compete.

The Pacers throttled Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets on Friday, a game that featured Granger’s first play being an impressive block on a layup attempt for Howard.

Indiana’s bench scored 41 points in the 114-81 blowout while holding James Harden to just 12 points on a sad 3-of-14 shooting.  In fact, Houston only connected on 38.1 percent of their field goals and a whopping 18.2 percent on their 22 3-point attempts.

There’s a reason why teams are becoming less excited about taking on the Pacers; it’s nearly impossible to execute your offense against them.  The Rockets scored a season-low 81 points, an offense that ranks second overall in scoring average.

3.  Paul George Will Become The Greatest Pacer

Peyton Manning departed from Indianapolis after cutting ties with the Colts after 13 years and his legacy will always flow through the city.  You can already sense the same type of narrative being written for Paul George, another future icon in Indiana sports.

Granting George the five-year max contract wouldn’t have come without George explicitly stating himself that he has absolutely no intention of leaving the Pacers.  He understands that the cohesiveness of this year’s team is unmatched by any of the other 29 teams, and more importantly, they are probably closer than ever at grabbing an NBA title.

Sure, the 1999-2000 Pacers captured the Eastern Conference and made a NBA Finals appearance, but they had no honest shot at upsetting the talented Los Angeles Lakers.  Sure, Reggie Miller had an illustrious 18-year career with just one franchise and increased the popularity of the Pacers.   However, Paul George’s production and two-way play style (offensively and defensively) is something this organization considers unprecedented.

George’s MVP votes and even just the discussion of the award make for an incredibly huge deal considering he is only 23 years old, in his 4th season, and averaging 23.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game with a player efficiency rating of 23.50.  George has also improved his 3-point efficiency from any of his past seasons, shooting 40.7 percent from beyond the arc while attempting 6.4 per game.

 

You can contact Anthony Young via email at:  [email protected], or on Twitter: @YoungNBA.  He will happily respond to any comments, questions, or thoughts.  Thanks for the read. 

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