The Indiana Pacers are set to begin their toughest stretch of the season with 11 of the next 14 games coming against current playoff teams along with dates against the defending champion Dallas Mavericks and the surging Minnesota Timberwolves sandwiched in between. (The combined winning percentage of the Pacers' opponents is an astoundingly high .610.)
To make it worse, eight of those contests come on the road. The only cupcake on the otherwise gruesome schedule is a home date with the hapless New Jersey Nets.
When all is said and done, Indiana will have a very clear idea of where they stand and whether or not they've successfully climbed from borderline playoff pretender to a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.
This crucial stretch will also either prove or discredit Larry Bird's six-year theory in the making that a complete team can compete and win against a team with a collection of superstars, or in Chicago's case, the reigning MVP.
So far, Bird's wisdom has paid dividends. The Pacers are off to a hot 10-4 start and have been one of the league's darlings in the early going.
In large part, the success can be attributed to the fact that the Pacers have assembled what is perhaps the most complete starting five, if not team, in the league. From point guard Darren Collison all the way down to center Roy Hibbert, the Pacers don't have a glaring weakness.
On any given night, any of the Pacers' top seven players could go for 20 points without such a scoring output being seen as a career night.
Perhaps, though, this is the team's very problem. Without a superstar, the Pacers still look unsure as to who will be the go-to guy on any given night. More importantly, Indiana doesn't have a player they can depend on in the clutch.
So while defenses must remain on their toes, Indiana too must fret in close games, hoping that someone will step up and find their rhythm in time to close out the game.
The added stress was evident against the Sacramento Kings as the Pacers took a 14-point lead into the fourth quarter before going cold and squandering the impressive effort. It wasn't Sacramento that held Indiana to only eight fourth-quarter points; it was the Pacers themselves who did it. Nobody knew where or to whom the ball should go. Ultimately the lack of confidence spread to the Pacers' shooting touch as players made timid decisions and hoisted weak-looking shots.
The following game, the Pacers nearly let it happen again. Were it not for a solid defensive effort including George Hill's spectacular steal and three-point play to win the game, the Pacers would have let another winnable game slip away.
Fortunately for Indiana, a majority of their games have come with comfortable margins.
For the Pacers to survive the upcoming gauntlet, they must figure out who wants the ball and who is clutch down the stretch. If they can do that, eight, nine, even 10 wins is a possibility and Larry Bird will continue to stake his claim as General Manager of the Year.
If not, Indiana will suffer through a lot of close losses and come out battered and bruised.
Ten wins would be spectacular over the next 14 games, seven to nine would be respectable and six or fewer could derail what has been a pleasantly surprising season to date.