Pacers Looking for a Challenge

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

January 19, 2014 | 12:40 a.m.

Frank Vogel tried his best to build respect for the Clippers. He told the media before Saturday's game that they presented “the biggest challenge this defense has faced in some time,” and told his players they weren't going to be able to dominate them as they had recent opponents.

“We tried to prove him wrong,” David West said.

And they did. The Pacers' 106-92 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse over the previously hot opponent from Los Angeles was that close only because of a late Clippers rush in garbage time, after the Pacers had built a 22-point lead. It was thorough, it was fundamental, it was film-at-11 entertaining, and it came over a team that was expected to provide a preview of what's to come on the five-game Western Conference road trip that begins on Monday.

That's just how the Pacers are rolling these days. The Clippers had averaged 111 points along the five-game win streak they brought in to the game, and their 28-13 record was the best in the Pacific Division and fourth-best in the West. There was reason to respect them, but the Pacers showed none. David West got himself ejected for the second half, and they still had their way – as if they were playing the bad team from L.A., the Lakers.

Defense is always the place to start whenever discussing the Pacers, because they're the NBA's best at it. They're allowing 88.2 points per game and a .409 field goal percentage, both lowest in the league. They use their length, intellect and willing hearts to help one another, contest shots, protect the rim and mix up strategies to keep opponents off-guard. And now they're scoring, too. They didn't reach 100 points until the ninth game of the season, and did it just six times in the first 25 games. They've done it seven times in the past 14 games, and four in a row.

Paul George is rolling again, too, scoring 36 against the Clippers, which he punctuated with a dunk that will run in highlights for years to come. Lance Stephenson finished with 22 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists, which almost seems the norm for him these days. The bench is improving almost nightly, so much so that West was barely missed in the second half.

They're playoff-ready, but there's 44 games to go first. What's left to work on? They can only find nuances, or areas in which they're already good. Vogel said they can force more turnovers, and foul less often. George said they can box out better and prevent offensive rebounds, although the Clippers had just nine. He also said they can limit transition scoring, although the Clippers, one of the best fastbreak teams in the league, scored only six.

So, yeah, the Pacers aren't perfect. But they are 32-7, a start matched in franchise history only by the 1969-70 ABA team, and better than anyone this season. No doubt about it, this is a sweet spot, with all kinds of positive factors merging to create a special season, the kind that rarely comes along and can't be taken for granted, by fans or players alike. Former Pacer Anthony Johnson, who played on the 61-win team in 2003-04, attended the game as a scout for New Orleans and reminded that young players sometimes think a window of opportunity will last a long time. He knows from his experience with the Pacers that it can close quickly.

For now at least, the Pacers are a rare combination of grit and glamor, most of the latter coming from George. His 360-degree reverse tomahawk dunk off his own steal late in the game had to be seen to be appreciated, and it was seen often after the game.

“I'm still young,” the 23-year-old told Brooke Olzendam during an oncourt interview following the game. “I still have a little juice in my legs.”

George's parents and sisters traveled from California to Indianapolis for the game, but he said their presence didn't motivate the dunk, which he had executed in the slam-dunk competition (with the lights off) over All-Star Weekend in 2012. Just something to do to impress the fans.

It impressed his teammates, too. Orlando Johnson stopped in front of George's locker on his way out of the locker room, standing behind the assembled media, waiting to catch his eye. Finally, he did.

“That dunk was crazy, man,” Johnson said, smiling. “Crazy. We were all hyped for you, too.”

Danny Granger found some craziness in George's play as well. Imagine how he feels now. He's in his ninth season for the Pacers, only one of which ended with a winning record excluding last season, when he played in just five games. He's looking more and more like his former self aside from the fact he's shooting just 37 percent. He figures that will come as he continues to brush the cobwebs from his game.

Meanwhile, he's enjoying the show.

“It's like, 'Paul, here you go, do your thing,'” said Granger, who finished with 12 points, four rebounds, no turnovers and solid defense in his 26 minutes. “He has crazy talent. Crazy. MVPish talent. He's going to be MVP in one of the next three years, I promise you. We all see that. So Paul, this is your show, take us to where we've got to go.”

The other crazy thing from Saturday's game was West's hyped-up elbow to Blake Griffin's head after the first half buzzer sounded. They were entangled underneath the Clippers basket at the time. Griffin didn't release quickly, so West responded with the elbow. Following a review by the referees, it was ruled a Flagrant 2, which brings an automatic ejection.

West watched the second half on a television in the weight room in the Pacers' training area. He even got in a light workout. Players who are ejected from games usually are gone by the time the media arrives in the locker room. West sat and answered all comers, calmly and clearly.

“(Griffin) had my arms locked; I just had to free my arm,” West said.

“You can't back down from him. You can't be afraid of his athleticism, which a lot of teams and players are in this league. You can't be scared. He's an unbelievable athlete, so you can't match his athleticism, but you can't be scared to make plays against him.”

The Pacers have a lighthearted locker room, but nobody joked with West about his presence not being needed.

“We don't mess with David,” Stephenson said. “I don't play with him. I ain't trying to get beat up.”

The Pacers now face a needed obstacle. The five-game road trip will take them through Golden State, Phoenix, Sacramento, Denver and Los Angeles. They went 3-2 on their previous five-game Western swing, which had a higher degree of difficulty and two back-to-back sets instead of one. It's a good time for them to deal with this kind of task, because all these home games, against East and West alike, were getting too easy for them. Their last four wins have come by 27, 24, 28 and 14 points, with the 14-point win over the Clippers deceivingly small.

“This will be our biggest remaining challenge,” Granger said. “We have to prove to ourselves we can be that dominant road team.”

It's about all that's left for them.

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