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Pacers' Season Takes on New Meaning

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

February 1, 2013

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OK, so that's two homecourt victories over the defending champion and the current conference leader, and both by a double-figure margin.

It's time to ask some questions in the wake of the Pacers' 102-89 domination of Miami on Friday. Are they truly as good or better than the Heat, or have they just caught them at the right time? Are the Heat still bathing in their championship glow and coasting toward the playoffs, or have the Pacers actually proven something? What do we take from the fact the Pacers have the best record in the Eastern Conference since they rebooted in December? And, can they take their act on the road, or are they just homebodies?

There were no predictions or promises heard in the Pacers' locker room, just a bunch of guys sitting around draped in green towels and playing it cool while the sellout crowd filed out of Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The question of what their two wins over Miami actually prove was put to George Hill, Lance Stephenson, David West and Paul George, and all answered as if following the same script. The only one to voice something slightly beyond fundamental optimism was Stephenson, who looks more and more like a starting shooting guard.

"We can compete with anybody if we put our mind to it," he said. "If we play as a unit, nobody can stop us. So if we keep playing like that and stay on the same page, the sky's the limit for us."

The Pacers have gone 18-8 since their 10-11 start, a better record than the three teams ahead or tied with them in the Eastern Conference over the same period. With a stream of home games welcoming them until the first week of March, it's only likely to get better. Of course the issue of beating good teams on the road remains, but that's a problem that will have to be put off until later, when the schedule offers more opportunities.

The reality check for the Pacers is that they are three games back of the Heat and part of a four-team cluster that includes New York, Chicago and Brooklyn. If the playoffs started today, they would be a five-seed, not even good enough for homecourt advantage in the first round.

The encouraging news, however, is that their offense is coming around. They ranked second-to-last in the league in scoring entering Friday's game, but have now averaged 102.75 points over the last four. The ball movement against Miami was as good as it's been all season, sometimes too good. More than a few times, they had to scramble to throw something toward the rim before the shot clock interrupted their communal ball-sharing display. Still, they shot a season-high 55.7 percent for the game, 65 percent in the decisive third quarter.

"With the Super Bowl around the corner, we've been talking about making the extra pass, but we've had too many incomplete passes," coach Frank Vogel said. "That's why our turnovers have been high. But I'll take incomplete passes when we're trying to make the extra pass. Our willingness to share the basketball over the last four games has been exceptional."

Offensive improvement is the key to the Pacers' ultimate fate this season. Their defense still ranks first in opponents' field goal percentage and second in points allowed, but the offense will have to be better than 29th to win the games that matter. Yeah, defense wins championships and all that. But you've gotta be at least average offensively to prove the point.

Danny Granger's return—Vogel says he could play a game or two before the All-Star break – will help. So would Roy Hibbert at least regaining last season''s level of offense. He was scoreless at the half on Friday, and finished with seven points in 30 minutes. If Gerald Green can fortify the bench scoring, or if Orlando Johnson can do it in Green's absence, that would be another plus.

Stephenson factors into the equation as well. He finished with 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting against the Heat, and didn't back down from Dwyane Wade, who scored 17. Didn't back down physically or verbally, either. He and Wade had words on occasion, semi-friendly trash talk that was about as equal as their performances.

"Just playing hard," Stephenson said. "If he says something you can't keep quiet. You have to say something back. I try to show no weakness."

Although the Pacers have won the tiebreaker with the Heat, because they play just one more time in Miami, they aren't ready to declare anything. They're still relying on the bad memory of their second-round playoff loss to the Heat last season as a fuel additive, but that will fade. Vogel said they realize the path to their postseason ambitions will almost certainly pass through Miami.

But they aren't backing down from the possibilities, either.

"We feel we have a shot at being first in the East if we continue to play well," George said. "Doing well on the road, that's where it really counts for us now."

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