Pacers good, but best yet to come

Feb. 24, 2012 - As they reach the season's midpoint, the Pacers can allow themselves the brief luxury of reflecting on what can only be considered extremely encouraging progress.

It's easy to forget just how far the Pacers have come in a relatively short period of time.

With a 21-12 record heading into the All-Star break, they are fully seven games ahead of last season, when they were 14-19 through 33 games.

They are entrenched in the race for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs, where last season at this point they did not even resemble a playoff team.

Their markedly upgraded roster includes current (Roy Hibbert), former (Danny Granger and David West) and future (Paul George) All-Stars.

And yet you won't find anyone in the locker room or coach's offices in danger of dislocating a shoulder by patting himself on the back. Much has been accomplished, but more remains to be done. One of the reasons the Pacers have achieved beyond expectation to this point is ambition, and they have no shortage of it as they look forward to the second half of the season.

"I don't think we're happy being one of the second-tier teams," Coach Frank Vogel said. "We can be one of the best teams in the league and I think our guys believe that and they're seeing the ways, the things they need to do to get there."

Such as?

"We've got to run; we've got to get 20 fast-break points per game," he said. "We've got to execute our transition defense. We've got to be tied together with our pick-and-roll defense and be under teams' chins on the catch, taking away their airspace, guarding the paint. We've got to share the ball, play through the post, execute pocket passes on pick-and-rolls and pin-downs.

"We've done them all at a very high point at some time throughout the season, we put it all together we can compete with Chicago, with Miami, with Oklahoma City. We know that and we're working towards doing it on a consistent level."

Where past teams have avoided big-picture talk of standings and seedings until the very late stages of the season, these Pacers consider it a part of their daily routine. This is a team that knows where it stands.

"We talk about it every session we meet, before every practice," Danny Granger said. "It's important you keep your goal in sight and we know that each one of these games is important because it could determine a playoff seed. It is different because in the past we were just trying to get into the playoffs. Now, we're trying to get a high seed.

"It is a motivating factor. There's four teams fighting for two spots in the top four and knowing any loss can put you down further, can put you down even in seventh if you lose a couple, that's a lot of motivation to keep winning games."

Of particular intrigue is that it would be inaccurate to suggest the Pacers have overachieved. To the contrary, a number of key players have not performed at peak levels, suggesting there remains much room for growth.

Their leading scorer, Granger, is shooting .382 from the field, by far the worst of his career. Assuming he climbs back to his normal level, he should be much more efficient in the second half.

David West needed several weeks to regain his conditioning and timing, not to mention confidence in his surgically repaired knee. At 12.4 points and 6.8 rebounds, he is well off the 19-point, 8-rebound pace of his previous five seasons and should begin to approach that with more consistency.

George Hill has missed more than one-third of the season with injuries, slowing the sixth man's ability to adapt to his new coaches, teammates and responsibilities.

Tyler Hansbrough has been mystifyingly erratic, shooting just 39 percent while averaging 9.4 points in a bench role that seems well-built for him because it calls upon his greatest strengths: scoring in bunches and bringing high energy.

Hibbert and George both are having their best seasons but neither has reached a professional apex. George, in particular, has enormous room for growth.

"The NBA is such that there's got to be a continuum in terms of your want and your drive to get better," West said. "Every week, every two weeks, we should feel like we're getting better, we're improving.

"I think the goal is to be playing your best basketball when it gets warm again. That's just always been my motto, as the bones start to feel better because of the warm weather, you want to be playing your best basketball. That's the right time of year to be peaking, to feel like the team camaraderie is at its highest."

Which leads to the most encouraging conclusion of all: the best of this team is yet to come.

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