Roy Hibbert blocking out Tyson Chandler
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Doing (and Saying) the Right Things

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

January 11, 2013

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The Pacers season is becoming a broken record of the best kind. Crowd-pleasing game performances and management-pleasing locker room conversation.

Their latest muscle-flexing win at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, this one over New York (81-76) in front of Reggie Miller, Chuck Pagano and a near-sellout crowd was more of the same. Paul George, dubbed by Miller during the TNT broadcast as the new face of the franchise, played another great game. The defense was great again, too. The bench provided some crucial contributions again, too. And then they downplayed it all afterward, spouting straight-faced, standard only-one-game cliches.

Game Rewind: Pacers 81, Knicks 76 »

They have won nine consecutive home games, 12 of their past 15 overall, and are coming off wins over the Eastern Conference's two best teams, Miami and the Knicks. They held each of them to their season-low point total. They have the conference's third-best record, and are the hottest team in the conference. They're the best defensive team in the conference based on opponents' field goal percentage, and are .02 from allowing the fewest points.

And this is all David West could say about the meaning of it all: "I don't know, we just have to remain focused. Obviously (the Knicks) were undermanned tonight, they're going to be a much tougher team to deal with as Amare (Stoudemire) gets more healthy, so we just have to take it for what it is and be happy to get a win."

And this is all George could say, even after dropping 24 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and a career-high six steals on the Knicks: “The next one (on Saturday) is more important. We can't take (Charlotte) lightly.”

Fortunately there's coach Frank Vogel to pull the fire alarm and alert the rest of the NBA that something might be happening in the heartland.

“Anybody who knows sports knows a team that can be the best defensive team in the league has a chance to go all the way,” Vogel said. “We're keeping it on an even keel, but we're understanding that what we're doing defensively is special. If our offense ever starts catching up, we'll be tough to beat.”

Maybe the offense will catch up when Danny Granger returns, or maybe it will catch up when Roy Hibbert locates his offense. Meanwhile, the Pacers are perhaps the league's most intriguing team. The Knicks didn't have the NBA's second-leading scorer (29.0) in Carmelo Anthony, but the Pacers didn't have Granger, and didn't have a healthy Hibbert (back spasms) or George Hill (bronchitis).

It was a physical game reminiscent of the mid-nineties battles between the two franchises, a man-sized affair that must have looked awfully familiar to Miller, who was helping describe it for TNT's national audience. There were 37 fouls, several more uncalled fouls, three technical fouls and plenty of hard feelings.

"We fought hard, but you've got to give the Pacers credit," Knicks center Tyson Chandler said. "They are for real."

What They're Saying: Pacers-Knicks »

One game-preserving possession summarized the game for the Pacers. Leading by 10 after Hill hit a free throw following Chandler's technical foul, George missed an 18-footer. But Lance Stephenson bullied his way into the lane and grabbed the rebound underneath the basket on the weakside and passed the ball out. Hill then missed a three-pointer, but Ian Mahinmi swept across the lane and grabbed another rebound to reset the clock. The ball found its way back to Manhimi, who hit an 18-footer with 3:05 left for a 12-point lead. The Knicks hit a couple of three-pointers to get within seven, but ran out of time.

The Pacers have so many ways to win, and will have another one if Hibbert becomes a threat in the lane again. That was most evident at the start of the half. New York, down five at the time, opened with a zone defense, but Stephenson hit a three-pointer in front of its bench to beat the shot clock. Knicks coach Mike Woodson looked at his lead assistant, Herb Williams, and shrugged. Next time down, George hit another three-pointer from the same spot. Woodson and Williams exchanged another helpless glance. Next time down, George got a layup in the halfcourt. And then George stole Chandler's pass in New York's halfcourt offense for a dunk that opened an 11-point lead and forced a Knicks timeout.

Still, it's mostly about defense for the Pacers. Vogel has thrown out the challenge of becoming the first team in franchise history to lead the NBA in defensive field goal percentage, and the players have bought in. There's no assigned guru, as Dick Harter was under Larry Bird, just a group of coaches that continues to emphasize the concept and a group of players who go along with it.

George, most of all. Vogel calls him the best wing defender in the NBA, and he has a valid argument. Tuesday, he outscored LeBron James, 29-22. Thursday, J.R. Smith scored 25 points on him, but needed 29 shots to do it.

George admitted afterward he wasn't a committed defender in high school or college, but gave credit to former coach Jim O'Brien for instilling the desire to do it. “That was the only way I could get on the floor as a rookie,” he said.

Stephenson, the quintessential playground product, has been similarly brainwashed.

What They're Saying: Paul George »

"If you're playing defense, you can stay on the floor," he said. "That's what I'm trying to do, stay on the floor."

Not that he isn't enjoying it.

"We're dialed in together," he said. "We talk to each other at the defensive end. We communicate. That's what defense is about."

His friends from the Brooklyn playgrounds must surely be scratching their heads.

The Pacers are 22-14, two games behind the first-place Heat in the East. But they're hardly home free. They play seven of their next eight games on the road after Saturday's game with Charlotte at the Fieldhouse, and still have that league-imposed back-to-back-to-back triple whammy the first week of February because of that postponed game with Chicago.

Still, optimism reigns for the moment. They're a hot team with a hot player, George, who this week has surely solidified his chance of meeting his stated preseason goal of being selected to play in the All-Star game.

Vogel, for one calls him a player who is "blossoming in front of our eyes with special performance after special performance after special performance."

And now a former face of the franchise, Miller, has assigned him that tagline.

What about that, Paul?

"Ummm," he said quietly, allowing himself a slight smile. "It's a blessing. I just want to do whatever to lead this team. I'm willing to play 48 minutes if I've got to. Whatever it takes to win."

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