Caught in the Web Indiana Pacers blog: After surprising start, Pacers need to keep sharp edge

After surprising start, Pacers must keep sharp edge

Feb. 7, 2012 - Time for a confession.

When the NBA released the schedule, I saw 15 of 22 on the road to start the season and just shook my head. For a young team trying to re-establish the momentum built in the playoffs, the league couldn't have handed the Pacers a worse scenario. I figured they'd be lucky to emerge from that stretch with a .500 record, and feared worse.

I certainly did not foresee 16 wins and one of the top records in the NBA. I was not alone.

"I don't think anybody did," Danny Granger said. "We knew we were going to be better than we were last year but we really hit the ground running. We're probably one of the top four teams in the East and we've played more road games than everybody. That's saying a lot for this team, it really is."

Along the way, the Pacers have snapped road losing streaks of nine in Chicago, seven in Boston, seven in Dallas and six in Orlando. They already have more road wins against Western Conference teams (four) than in the last two seasons combined (when they were 3-27).

Even with the dead-legged 85-81 loss to Orlando Saturday, the Pacers (16-7) have the fifth best record in the NBA. The Pacers have been ranked in the top five in points allowed (90.7) and field goal percentage defense (.417) throughout the season. Only lately has the offense started to come around.

"Look, this team is playing really, really well and it's fueled by their defense," Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy said. "If you look at their numbers, they've become one of the best defensive teams in the league. I don't think that's hard to understand.

"They play very hard and they've got great size, and size and defense go hand-in-hand. It's just tough to get easy shots against these guys. To do it, you've got to play with great energy and ball movement and get those big bodies moving around. That makes it hard, it really does. They've played very good defense the entire year."

Though they had six players on the All-Star ballot and two former All-Stars on the roster in West and Danny Granger, the Pacers are a low-wattage team when it comes to star power in the incandescence of the NBA. They rely on offensive balance, unselfishness and execution.

Granger is the leading scorer at 18.2 but that's well below his 25.8 peak in 2008-09, as all five starters average double-figure scoring.

The schedule now turns in the Pacers' favor; they actually will have consecutive home games for the first time this season. Seven of their next 11 are in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which brings up a new challenge for Vogel: fighting the possibility of complacency.

"The good-news, bad-news of the deal is five of the top six (teams in the NBA) are in the Eastern Conference. So if we slip up at all, we lose one game, all of a sudden we're behind Atlanta and Philly again," Vogel said. "We know we need every single game to keep pace and there's a high level of competition in the East to gain that home court advantage so we're just trying to concentrate and stay sharp every night."

That's a challenge for a young team; just ask the I.U. Hoosiers what can happen if you take the foot off the gas after a fast start. On top of the natural tendency to feel a sense of accomplishment with a short-term gain, opponents begin to take you that much more seriously. All of a sudden, a victory over the Pacers is an achievement.

"I think our coaches are doing a good job of keeping us hungry," Granger said. "We lost a game we should've won (against Orlando) and they made sure we knew that. They're keeping it in our mind that even though we're a top seed in the East right now a lot of other teams have good records, too, and we're battling them for playoff position. So that's going to keep us focused."

NOTES: Jeff Foster returned to practice Monday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and could be available against Utah Tuesday. Foster missed the past 11 games and 17 so far with lower back issues. "(Utah) is a very physical team," Foster said, "and if needed I will be ready to go." … George Hill will miss his fourth straight with a chip fracture in his left ankle but the prognosis is more positive than originally thought. "It's not going to be a six-to-eight week type of thing," Vogel said. "He's doing well. There's still no definitive timetable for his return but it' going to be shorter rather than longer." … Tuesday's game begins a second consecutive week with four games in five days. "All you can do is laugh about it," Granger said. "We got to practice today and somebody said, 'You know, we've got another four games in five days.' Those are brutal. We've just got to try to buckle down and get through it. "

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