1. Defined Roles. Last year at this point in the season the Pacers were a team in flux. Long time scoring leader Danny Granger was out for at least half of the season (it ended up being, for all intensive purposes, the whole season). And 2 of the starting 5 had just received near max deals, and were now dealing with the pressure that comes with it. Who was the guy who was going to take the last shot? Who was the team leader? The guy that would carry the team? Who was supposed to fill in the Danny Granger role? Well, as the season progressed, those roles got filled. Paul George became the go to guy, Hibbert and Hill got over the contract pressure, and Lance Stephenson finally showed signs of growing up. The roles defined with time, but now that we are a year later, everyone knows there job. Paul George has gone from a guy who was a great defender and would have a big game every now and then, to a guy who has put up at least 20 points every night. Furthermore, this season we have seen Paul George show a greater maturity than last year. If he starts off slow, he doesn't disappear, nor does he start forcing shots. He does not go out on the floor thinking he is going to get his 20+, he goes out there to make his team better, and in the process drops 20 and 7 on you.
3. An Improved Bench. Pacers fans do not need reminded about last seasons bench woes. Pacers fans do not need reminded about the bench woes of 2 seasons ago. Pacers fans didn't need reminded by every sports radio and TV analyst that the breaking point of this Pacers team was when guys like George and Hibbert went out for a breather... or worse foul trouble. Larry Bird and GM Pritchard didn't need reminded either. They went out and fixed the problem. D.J. Augustine couldn't run the offense off the bench... Gone! In came CJ Watson, a true point guard who can impact the game without scoring a point. Hansborough was a wrecking ball in the paint and would have the opposing team in the penalty within minutes of entering the game... Gone! In came experienced vet Luis Scola who has a soft touch and a professionalism about him that fit with the team atmosphere. The difference through 8 games? Points... lots of points! And more importantly, it hasn't come at the expense of the Defense. Scola's ability to score from a reserve role has taken a lot of pressure of Vogel to play the starters more minutes. The result has been fresher legs in the 2nd game of back to backs (where the Pacers have beaten very tough teams, including a stretch of 4 games in 5 days). Likewise, Watson has been a solid back up point guard that has gotten everyone on the bench involved in ways everyone hoped Augustine would a year ago. He even has stepped in and started recently with Hill battling a hip injury and the team has not missed a beat.
5. Confronting the Brutal Facts. I am currently reading a book about taking a company from good to great (that's the title by Jim Collins). One of the key points about making the change is facing the hard facts about how things are really going, and knowing what is not working. Well when the season ended last year, 1 game from the NBA finals, the Pacers players could have said "Well, we were good enough to get here, we can do it again next year... lets just do what we did this year and we'll be fine". It would have been easy for the players to be complacent, they were the 2nd best team in the East and gave the Heat everything they could take. But the Pacers didn't do that. Paul George looked in the mirror and realize he needed to be a better ballhandler to become a great player... George is much more confident with the ball in his hands, and is getting to the rim from the perimeter with greater efficiency than last year. Last year Lance Stephenson was one dimensional on offense, relying on the fast break and getting to the rim to score. His outside shot was streaky at best. But, over the summer, on Larry Legends prodding, he met with a shooting coach... the result... Lance has been a real threat from behind the arc. The Pacers had deficiencies last season (as a team it was the bench, but we addressed that earlier) and the players, rather than be complacent have made an effort over the summer to fix those. As a result, they are more multidimensional on offense and scoring with greater ease (which was a problem during stretches of last season).
Likewise, the Pacers were not very good in back to back games or in games played on the road. Both of those situations require a little bit higher level of mental toughness. The legs are tired in game 2 of the back to back, and things never seem to go your way on the road. But so far the Pacers are 3-0 on the back end of back to backs , and have 3 road wins already this year... including one in Brooklyn to a team that haunted the Blue and Gold Menace all of last season. I am not saying the Pacers were a mentally weak team last year (far from it), what I am saying is that they are showing signs that they are taking that next step in mental toughness. Paul George was quoted after the game in Brooklyn saying that the Pacers of last year would not have closed down that game and would have ended up losing the game. That is not true of this years Pacers. They have seen what it takes to win big games (because they won several last year) and are showing signs that winning high pressure, high profile games is something that they do, and do well.
7. Home Sweet Home. The Pacers, after last years tough game 7 loss in Miami, know how important now it is to have home court advantage in the NBA playoffs. The players are focused more so than ever at having any games 7's they have to play this year in their building. The fan support was great last year in the playoffs and they made Bankers Life a tough place to come to and get a W. The Pacers players know this, and are doing everything in their power to get that home court throughout the playoffs. The intensity is great right now, but they have got to keep it up through May to insure that that happens. But don't count on the Pacers taking any games off any time soon.
This post is already long enough, so I am going to wrap things up by saying this. The Pacers are playing well right now. And the guy who they thought would be a key factor to this years edition of the Pacers being better than the last (Danny Granger) has yet to play a minute. The Pacers are a long way from winning a title, but they have done things in the off season, that we can currently see, that have put them in a position to give the Heat, or anyone else who comes in their path, a tough time. The question still remains, who takes the shot to win the game. Is PG ready for that responsibility? But the Pacers of this year look very strong and count me as one who is excited to see them play the rest of the season.
Thanks for reading,
-T.O. signing out.