They know where they stand, and it's nothing to brag about. They're 17-18, still below sea level, and have yet to win more than two consecutive games. If the playoffs were to start tomorrow, they would be the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Pacers, though, can be forgiven for casting a brief glance at a silver lining or two in the wake of their 117-104 victory over Orlando at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Sunday. Despite the "yeah, but" aspects of the game -- just their second victory in a row, coming against a losing team that afterward was disgusted with its defensive effort -- the elements of what will be required to move them toward the top of the logjam in the Eastern Conference standings were more noticeable than ever.
They moved the ball, took good care of it, had six players score in double figures and brought energy to their defense.
Oh, and Jeff Teague came back for the second half.
Just having Teague available was the game's highlight for the Pacers, who have learned to play with him to the point they wouldn't know what to do without him, now. Teague, who had a career-high 17 assists in Friday's victory over Chicago, was rolling again in the second quarter, assisting on three consecutive baskets for Myles Turner. He fed him for a dunk, then got into the lane to feed him for a layup that drew a foul and was converted to a three-point play, and then drove the lane, turned and threw back a pass for a 3-pointer that opened an 11-point lead and forced Magic coach Frank Vogel to call a timeout.
The next possession, however, brought potential disaster. Teague drove the lane, stopped, rolled his ankle and fell to the court. He was escorted to the locker room by athletic trainer Josh Corbeil, leaving everyone to wonder how serious the injury might be, and just how the team could survive a long-term absence.
"Were you worried?" Pacers coach Nate McMillan was asked afterward.
"Absolutely," he said.
No worries. Teague returned for the second half and directed a solid third quarter that kept the Pacers in command. He finished with 12 points and nine assists, and was the catalyst to an offense that hit half of its field goal attempts, got to the foul line for 24 attempts and committed just 11 turnovers – three of those in the final 3:49, after the victory was assured.
"That's what we've felt he could do for us all season long," Paul George said. "He's so good at getting in the paint and going coast to coast, and that forces defenses to load up on him just off his quickness and speed. Now he's almost throwing that ball blind, knowing where we're at. We all have a great feel for him now."
Turner does, obviously. Five of his seven field goals were assisted by Teague, everything from dunks to that second-quarter 3-pointer. He finished with 23 points and 12 rebounds, both game-highs, but knew where the credit belonged.
"The biggest thing is, we're having fun now," he said. "That starts with Jeff. He's really establishing the tempo and establishing the way we play."
McMillan has been talking for weeks of the effort to find a balance in the offense. The much-hyped, hyper-active offense that produced 130 points in an overtime game in the season-opener left too many holes on defense, and too often left George out of the picture. Slowing the tempo was making the halfcourt stagnant, with too much dribbling and not enough passing.
The past two games offer evidence they've found a niche. Substituting Glenn Robinson III for Monta Ellis in the starting lineup puts the ball in Teague's hands more often, and has produced a more consistent and balanced offense.
"We've had ball movement (in the past), but then there's times we get thirsty and take quick shots, where guys start to feel, 'I haven't had a shot or a play call for me,' and they're looking to get involved in the game through the offensive end of the floor," McMillan said. "We haven't seen that the last two games.
"When you play that type of basketball, everybody gets involved. It's contagious."
Now it's time for winning to catch on. McMillan set a goal before the season of winning 10 games each month, aside of course from October. So far, the Pacers have fallen short each time. He can rattle off the records off the top of his head: 1-2 in October, 8-8 in November and 6-7 in December.
Now it's a new month, a new year and they're 1-0. No big deal yet, but a potential start of something better.
"Our guys are aware of where we are, what we've done and what we need to do to try to get some separation in the East," McMillan said.
"(The last two wins) are something to build off of. We're coming out thinking defensively first. And the offense, with the ball movement, we just seem to be connected on both ends of the floor. This is what we've talked about all season long."
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