If he were so inclined, coach Frank Vogel and the rest of the Pacers could be talking trash to the analysts these days. The ones who predicted in the preseason there was no way his team would make the playoffs … the ones who claimed during the dry spells that his team didn't care … the ones who said it might as well go into all-out tank mode and play for the highest lottery draft pick available.
Vogel isn't so inclined, however, even now that his team has won six of its last seven games, has moved to within one game of the seventh spot and a half-game back of eighth in the Eastern Conference heading into Monday night's games, and has eight of its next nine games at home following Tuesday's game in Oklahoma City.
“We're starting to play better, but we still have a lot of work to do,” he said following Monday's practice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
That's as far as Vogel will go toward making a hopeful declaration, and his players are following suit. Nobody is making guarantees or talking back to critics, and they claim not to be paying much attention to the conference standings despite the increasingly desirable real estate they are acquiring within it.
“We're happy to get this win. We'll continue to work hard and try to get another one,” David West said following Sunday's victory.
“We're showing glimpses of what we can be. That's the important thing,” C.J. Miles said following Monday's practice.
The Pacers are indeed a work in progress, but are showing progress. They have scored more than 100 points in each of their last six victories, and their defense has been solid. Not stifling, as it was most of last season, but solid. Given their momentum and their remaining schedule, there's every reason for them to be optimistic about making the playoffs.
They even appear to be getting luckier.
They have lost more players to injury than any team in the NBA this season, but other teams are catching up. Manu Ginobili sat out the game against San Antonio on Feb. 9. Anthony Davis sat out the game at New Orleans. They played Philadelphia two days after its front office had shredded its roster once again, including a trade former Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams. League MVP candidate Steph Curry sat out Sunday's game against Golden State. Another of the league's elite players, Kevin Durant, will miss Tuesday's game in Oklahoma City.
Vogel sometimes talks about “regression to the mean,” or “water finding its level” during difficult times. In other words, the breaks tend to even out in the long run. That applies to a bad shooting stretch by one of his players, such as Miles had at the start of the season, a hot shooting performance by an opposing player or a bad run of injuries for his team.
Lately, the good breaks have become more frequent, sometimes in the form of bad breaks (injuries) for other teams.
And there's this: Paul George might return this season. He said he hopes to be a full participant in practice starting March 1 – more likely March 2, since the Pacers play Philadelphia on the first – and begin playing in games by mid-March. George did not participate in the portion of Monday's practice media members were allowed to watch, but was sweating as he watched halfcourt work from the Pacers' bench. Vogel said later he is increasing his involvement in the workouts.
It remains to be seen if George will play this season. And if he does, how much, and how well? Still, he represents another possible log for a growing fire.
West, for one, remains doubtful. Or, perhaps, grounded.
Sunday, after he had spoken optimistically about acquiring a playoff spot, I asked him about the potential impact of George returning.
“He's crazy,” West said. “But you know, he's eager to just be part of it.
“Are you skeptical about it?” I asked.
He paused, searching for the right words.
“I'm behind him,” he said. “I'm going to support him either way. I just want him to be safe and be careful.
“But he's young and he feels good and he's working his butt off. He's still a long ways away, but if he feels he's getting closer all we can do is be in his corner and support him.”
So, what if? What if George comes back and, after a month's worth of regular season games, approaches his form of last season. Could the Pacers be as good as the last two years, when they were the first and second seeds in the Eastern Conference?
“I don't know,” West said. “We've got to stay the course. The way we're playing now, having a consistent five, guys getting roles they're comfortable with, we're going to try to stay in that vein.”
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