Indiana Pacers won 49 games last year and captured the Central Division, so why does is seem like they are sneaking up on the rest of the NBA this season?
They were recognised as a “good” team, which may be exactly what has grated the Pacers. They believe they can be “great”. So they took little satisfaction in pushing Miami Heat to seven games before falling. They have bigger things in mind this season.
“I wanted them to come back with the mindset that we do have something special here,” said Paul George, the Indiana forward.
The Pacers are off to a special start. They are the last unbeaten team standing, their 7-0 start only fuelling the confidence that began to swell last season. Included in their winning streak is a 17-point victory over Chicago Bulls and a 96-91 victory at Brooklyn Nets.
They are not acting bashful, either. They are promoting George as an early MVP candidate. Roy Hibbert, the centre, has flat out said he wants to win the Defensive Player of the Year award. And they have declared their intention to finish the regular season with the league’s best record.
“We believe in this locker room that we can get the No 1 seed and we started the year with that attitude,” said David West, the Pacers forward. “The fact that Game 7 of the conference finals wasn’t in our home building, we felt was the difference in a trip to the Finals and we’re going to do everything in our power to get a Game 7 in our building.”
The Pacers’ core has been together for three seasons. And new bench players CJ Watson and Luis Scola are veterans used to being role players. It is a mature team, acting hungry.
An excellent defensive team last season, they may be even better now. They lead the league in 8.7 blocks per game, are holding opponents to an NBA-best 85.3 points and a 38.9 shooting percentage, and have outscored their opponents by 9.6 points per game, also best in the league.
“I think we have a championship-level defence,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. “And we’ve got enough offensive pieces to put it all together on the offensive end. So it will be an exciting year.”
George is averaging 25.1 points per game, third-best in the league. Last season, he was the league’s Most Improved Player. This season, he may be approaching superstar status.
“I feel like I’m coming into my own, I feel confident out there,” George said. “I want to be considered an elite player on both ends.”
The Pacers know the path to the NBA Finals in the East they will have to go through the champions, Miami, the team that knocked them out of the post-season the past two years.
“We were 8-1 at home in the play-offs last year,” Vogel said. “To lose a Game 7 on the road, that’s a tough environment. We’re trying for that No 1 seed. We’re going for it.”
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