Can The Indiana Pacers Break Through In The East?

All season long in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, the story has been about either the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls. The recent surge of the Boston Celtics has put them back on the public radar. But another team is riding high in this conference, and has won eight of nine games in April. The Indiana Pacers are 38-22, settling comfortably into the #3 seed and looking like a team that can at least make the favorites of this conference sweat it out in the postseason. TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look at the Pacers…

Indiana is a team very well-balanced, with only three players drawing over thirty minutes a game. Darren Collison at the point, Danny Granger at small forward and Roy Hibbert at center are an ideal core, with distributing, scoring, rebounding and defense all there in one three-man package. Then you start filling in the niche spots, starting with power forward David West and moving to shooting guards Paul George and Leandro Barbosa. There’s quality depth with George Hill spelling Collison and Tyler Hansbrough backing up West. The Pacers could ideally use a better three-point shooter—someone who at least 40 percent from behind the arc, but they have four players who connect in the high 30s, enough to make it worthwhile shooting the trey. The team ranks in offensive and defensive efficiency are 10th and 12th respectively, while their rebounding is the 8th best in the NBA.

The Pacers are playing right now like the team they always had a chance to be, although it looked for a while like they might have to go on the road to start the playoffs. Then Philadelphia and Orlando fell apart, Atlanta’s been sluggish and Indiana put it together at the right time. While they’ve been playing well for longer than the start of this month, the 8-1 stretch since April 1 represents a good sample size to examine and see what the common themes of success are, and whether it’s sustainable. Here’s a rundown of those nine games…

April 1: at Houston (104-102, OT): I shouldn’t pick nits with beating a playoff contender  (Houston is currently #8 in the West)on the road, but the poor play of the Indiana backcourt has to be pointed out here. They gave up a combined 44 points to Rocket guards Courtney Lee and Goran Dragic, and the best Houston guard in Kyle Lowry was in streetclothes with a  season-ending knee injury. Indiana also lost turnovers 15-8. But they won because they hit the glass hard, winning the battle 54-44, and Granger knocked down 32 points.

April 3: vs New York (112-104): Maybe Carmelo Anthony was inspired by the presence of Pacers president Larry Bird, but Indiana had to overcome a hot Melo, who knocked down 39 Granger scored 28 of his own and had a much better supporting cast to fall back on.

April 4: at Washington (109-96): This is the kind of game contenders have been losing this year in the compressed schedule where you have to pick some spots to take a breather. Indiana did, as they didn’t rebound, but good shooting bailed them out. Collision dished 11 assists, finding the open  men all night.

April 6: vs. Oklahoma City (103-98): After a day off, and presumably motivated by a big-time foe, Indiana again got after the glass, as Hibbert had 21 rebounds to match his 21 points. Kevin Durant followed in Melo’s path of putting on a show for the Indiana crowd with 44 points. But Granger stays steady, scores 26 and Indiana gets a big win.

April 7: vs. Boston (72-86): The one loss in this stretch is actually pretty understandable. Even at home, it was one night after the Thunder win and the Pacers struggled shooting the ball, hitting only 35 percent from the floor.

April 9: vs. Toronto (103-98): This was a poor defensive effort against a lousy team. Playing at home after a night off, and coming off a defeat, there’s no reason to let the Raptors shoot 48 percent from the floor and hit 10/20 threes. A balanced scoring offense saved the team from an embarrassing upset.

April 11: at Cleveland (104-98, OT): Hibbert had 11 rebounds, Granger scored 23, and West and Hill each had big games, as the Pacers escape Cleveland.

April 13: vs. Cleveland (102-83): Back at home, the defense turns up the heat with a clamp down performance. Cleveland shoots only 35 percent from the floor, the Pacers force 18 turnovers, Granger scores 18 and Hibbert again gets double-digits on the glass.

April 14: at Milwaukee (105-99): Hibbert dominates the post with a 23/14 night. Even though Milwaukee is small inside, the 7’2” Indiana center deserves high marks for focus. It would have been easy to let down on Saturday night, but he took advantage of the opportunity to dominate. Granger scored 21 to lead the offense.

The positives to take out of this stretch is how consistent Indiana’s key players are. Even in the games where I didn’t mention Hibbert or Granger, the former always rebounds and the latter always scores. The rebounding as a team is very consistent. The issue in the playoffs is going to be making certain the defense forces enough of those missed shots to let Hibbert be a difference-maker. I also found it concerning that Melo and Durant were both unstoppable in Pacer home games. If Indiana wants to advance deep into the playoffs (i.e. ,the conference finals) they won’t have any room for error at home and you don’t want to let LeBron or Derrick Rose steal a game from you with a singular performance.

Indiana will have a pretty easy schedule the rest of the way. Five of the last six games are at home, and with the team up 2.5 games on Boston for the #3 seed, they can pretty well rest starters—the Celtics will do the same and the difference between the 3 and 4 seeds is negligible anyway. The Pacers’ season finale is against the Bulls, though I can’t imagine anyone of significance will play. The bottom line? We’ve likely learned all we’re going to about the 2012 Indiana Pacers. There’s a lot to like, but I would have preferred to see better defense.