The new NBA season has only been alive and kicking for about ten days or so, but already we have seen some things that have made us sit up and take notice, or scratch our heads in bewilderment. From win-less teams like Denver, to the hot starts by Minnesota and Philadelphia who forgot they were tanking this year – it has been fun and exciting. We have had “The Returns” of Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, we have seen the emergence of potential Most Valuable Player candidates in Kevin Love and Chris Paul and in what could be the most interesting development so far – we have seen the Indiana Pacers undefeated, led by Paul George take on all comers and really establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference.
Indiana really broke onto the scene in the East over the past couple of seasons with solid and gritty play, some talented and emerging players and decent free agent pick ups. They really caused the NBA title favourites Miami Heat a few headaches on their way to the Larry O’Brien Trophy and people started to sit up and take notice. While much of the conversation had always been about the Heat, the Chicago Bulls, the New York Knicks and so forth, the Indiana Pacers were showing they deserved to be mentioned in the same breath. Now it appears they are not just happy being labelled as “a tough match up”, they want to prove that they are contenders and on any given night, they are putting the proof in the pudding. As the NBA’s only remaining undefeated team, the Pacers are putting the league on notice – they aren’t here to make up numbers, they aren’t here to make someone’s run to the title a bit harder, they are here to win – and win it all.
On a balanced team, it used to be hard to pick out a star. Paul George has made that task a very easy one as he emerged last year as a very talented wing who could play the guard and forward spots, working just as hard on the defensive side of the ball as he did on offence. He was given the tough task on taking the opposition’s best player and also producing for a team that had lost Danny Granger through injury. If he was impressive last year, he has been nothing short of stellar this season and should very well be included in the MVP conversation. He has taken his game to an even higher level, registering stats in every category imaginable. The rest of the team have been a terrific supporting cast, but George has been a shining light.
This off-season, the Pacers made a few tweaks to their squad, trying to get a little more out of this group and aiming to replicate their Conference Finals appearance and perhaps even go one better. They brought in Luis Scola to give them size and experience in the frontcourt and they also snatched Chris Copeland from the Knicks – a mature player with solid outside shooting and a good work ethic. They also expected to have Danny Granger return and were putting faith in Lance Stephenson carrying over some of his terrific playoff performances. If you add these changes to the further development of Roy Hibbert in the middle, the veteran savvy of David West and the explosion by Paul George and it is pretty hard to keep a lid on it.
It hasn’t helped that the Pacers have started the season on a tear. If they didn’t want a target on their back – too bad. With a statement win over the Derrick Rose led Chicago Bulls and keeping every other opponent under 100 points, the Pacers have put the league on notice – they are going to be tough this year and you are going to earn each and every victory you take from them. Roy Hibbert has shown a great deal of improvement and has been blocking shots at will, showing some benefit from training with Tim Duncan during the off-season. As mentioned, Paul George has been out of this world and David West has also been a rock underneath. What is even more incredible, is that this hot start hasn’t really featured two important pieces – George Hill and Danny Granger.
In their absence, it hasn’t just been Paul George that has done the damage. Although he has paced the team in scoring in four of the five wins, the Pacers are also getting great contribution from Lance Stephenson. He has shown signs of improvement from the playoffs last year and is developing a very nice game that compliments George, West and Hibbert. Once so highly rated that they thought he might be the next “superstar”, Lance struggled early on in his career, but it appears as though he has found a home in Indiana, so much so that he has already stated he doesn’t and won’t leave the team in free agency. Sure, lip service right now, but you only need to watch Indiana and you can see that he has something special brewing there.
The Pacers now face a tougher battle. Many skeptics will point to the fact the the Pacers have really only beaten one real contender – the Chicago Bulls, and that Derrick Rose is still not back to his best yet. They will point out that of the other four teams they have beaten (Orlando, Detroit, New Orleans and Cleveland) only one currently has a winning record. I have always said “you can only play the games on the schedule”. It is not the Pacers’ fault the schedule gave them this start, all they can do is win the games they play, and that they have. They have also done it in championship fashion, grinding out on both ends of the floor, playing terrific team defence, keeping teams to low scores and poor shooting, while providing a balanced attack on offence. This is how champions become champions. It is not a running and gunning show that is visually spectacular – it is a system that works (and PG24 certainly gives us the odd highlight play here and there!)
Through the next few games, the Pacers will take on Toronto, the highly paid and talented Brooklyn Nets, last year’s Thunder killers the Memphis Grizzlies, a rematch against the Chicago Bulls who will want revenge, and they have a crucial clash against the New York Knicks. This period of games will tell us and the Pacers a couple of things – one being if they really are good enough to win the games they should and also if they should be taken as a serious threat out East. The Brooklyn Nets have been put together at great expense to win a title and to win it now. The New York Knicks have been “around the mark” recently but it feels like a “now or never” situation. The Pacers will want to dispatch both teams or put in a very solid display against each, to start swaying the haters and putting the league on notice.
Not a great deal can be read into five games – I agree. The Indiana Pacers though have been working at this for a couple of seasons now, building to this moment where they can give the NBA Finals a real tilt and perhaps bring back some hardware. If their improvement in this time is anything to go by, we might be seeing a heap of wins for the Pacers this season. Then I wonder what we can read into 60 games? Memo to Chicago, Miami, Brooklyn and New York – the Pacers are coming . . . and quickly.