by Mark Montieth | email@example.com
November 29, 2013
Throughout their 15-1 sprint out of the blocks, the best start in franchise history, the only killjoy caution that could be uttered about the Pacers is that they have fattened up on the dessert of their schedule before reaching the main course.
Let's face it, they haven't exactly been on the Bataan Death March here. They haven't exactly weathered Hurricane Sandy. They haven't exactly been knocking off Goliath every night.
OK, you get the point, which is that the combined record of their opponents entering Friday's schedule was 79-132. All but two of their opponents have been from the Eastern Conference, so given that the only other team in the East with a winning record besides themselves is Miami, a team they haven't yet faced, they've had it pretty easy. Their lone opponent that was considered any sort of a title contender in the preseason has been Chicago, whom they've played twice – and the Bulls delivered their only loss – 110-94 – after leading by 25 points at halftime when they ventured into the United Center.
Friday's 20-point win over Washington was fairly typical of what they've faced so far. The Wizards had won three straight to get within one game of .500, but played without two starters, Bradley Beal and Nene (who was a last-minute scratch) and veteran backup Al Harrington. They were no match, ultimately.
So, if the Pacers' schedule to this point has been a series of friendly nudges forward, they're about to turn directly into a flurry of punches from the left coast, as they face five games – four of them against the best teams in the Western Conference – over a nine-day trek. They'll encounter the Clippers in Los Angeles on Sunday, Portland on Monday, Utah on Wednesday, San Antonio on Saturday and Oklahoma City on Sunday. Sans Utah, those four teams had a combined 47-13 record before Friday. The only thing the NBA's schedule-making computer could have done to make the challenge more difficult would have been to replace Utah (2-14) with another one of the West's winning teams. On the other hand, the Pacers have lost six straight games in Salt Lake City, so maybe that won't be a rest stop on the trip.
It's not just the lineup of opponents, it's the timing, too. The Pacers played Friday night. They'll fly to Los Angeles Saturday at about 3 p.m., and face the Clippers Sunday afternoon at 12:30 p.m., L.A. time. Then it's off to Portland to face the Blazers the next night. They get two days off after meeting Utah, then play in San Antonio (where they've lost 12 straight games) and Oklahoma City in a weekend back-to-back to close down the trip.
“The NBA is challenging us,” Paul George said, laughing. “But we just have to step up to it and be professionals.”
And, oh, yeah. They face Miami back at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday, Dec. 10, two days after the game at Portland. It's accepted theory within the NBA that the first home game following a long road trip is like an extension of the trip. Players have to fly to get to the game and adjust to a new time zone, and deal with the distraction of all the details that piled up at home while they were away.
So, it's essentially five extremely difficult games out of the next six, a stretch that threatens to take the shine off their league-best .938 win percentage. It could even be the most difficult road trip in franchise history, given the quality of four of the opponents, all of whom qualify as title contenders.
“We understand it's going to be a challenge,” David West said. “It'll make or break us. It'll really let us see where we really are in terms of the whole picture.”
It's unlikely that West meant “make or break” too literally. It's unlikely the Pacers will feel broken if they lose the majority of the games and fall into a prolonged slump. But, the trip is the best test yet for a team that's been mostly gliding along with pop quizzes so far. It's not a final exam by any means, but it's easily the most difficult challenge of the season – and will still be so at season's end.
It would be foolish to think the Pacers will return home with the same one loss they leave with on Saturday. They did sweep a four-game trip through Houston, Dallas, Phoenix and L.A. (against the Clippers) late last season, but this one has a much greater degree of difficulty. And that one was an anomaly, anyway. Teams generally feel fortunate to come close to splitting long road trips, even when playing mediocre teams. The 1995-96 Bulls team that finished 72-10 lost two consecutive games just once that season, and they came on a Western road trip.
Still, the Pacers aren't in much of a mood to concede anything. George did say he would be happy with three or four wins out of the five, but others, including coach Frank Vogel, dusted off the one-game-at-a-time cliché.
“We try to win every game,” George Hill said. “We don't go out there and try to do no splits or try to go out there and not try to win all the games.”
Added West: “We understand the challenge. But we feel we're one of the better teams in the NBA. We'll see how they match up with us.”
Vogel refused to discuss the trip with the media before Friday's game, preferring to keep the entire focus on the Wizards. His only reference to it when talking with the players was that they shouldn't be thinking about it until after they had dealt with the Wizards. West acknowledged there was some locker room conversation about it among the players Friday morning, but nothing serious.
They'll get down to a serious dissection of the Clippers Saturday morning before flying out to L.A. Vogel will bring up the overall challenge at that point, but doesn't have a Knute Rockne speech planned. The Pacers will be packing the NBA's best record with them. They don't need inspiration to give them confidence.
“There will be some sort of message about, 'we want to be the best,'” Vogel said. “We don't want to be a team amongst the best. We want to be the best.
“I know one thing … forgetting the string of games we have ahead, our team expects to win every time we step into a building, no matter who we're playing or where we're playing. If we have that same mindset, we have a chance to have a great trip.”
And remove all remaining doubts.
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