Indiana Pacers: Why They Are a Legitimate Contender in the Eastern Conference

David DietzContributor IIIFebruary 4, 2012

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 06:  Danny Granger #33 of the Indiana Pacers congratulates Darren Collison #2 after Collison shot a 3-point shot late in the fourth quarter against the Boston Celtics on January 6, 2012 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Indiana Pacers defeated the Boston Celtics 87-74. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The element of surprise. The Greeks used it in Troy, George Washington understood it's value against the British and the Indiana Pacers have capitalized on it night-in and night-out to catapult themselves to one of the best records in the league. 

For opponents, Indiana is a nightmare to prepare for because you don't know who the Pacers' X-factor is going to be. The offense mostly runs through All-Star forward Danny Granger on the perimeter and Roy Hibbert has been playing great down low, but it's the Pacers third option that is always the surprise. 

It's like the Ocean's 11 franchise. George Clooney and Brad Pitt carried the film, but in each movie a different star emerged to help enhance the story. Whether it was Bernie Mac (Ocean's 11), Julia Roberts (Ocean's 12) or Matt Damon (Ocean's 13), someone different always stepped in to add a unique personality and fill a key role.

That's what the Pacers have. Sure, they don't have the same name recognition as the Hollywood legends mentioned, but the Indiana supporting cast is proving just as valuable and opposing teams are completely stumped as to how to prepare for them.

Take the past two nights as an example (both comfortable road wins against quality opponents, I might add).

Paul George went for 10 against Minnesota before exploding for 30 against the Mavericks. Meanwhile, Darren Collison was on fire against the Timberwolves scorching them for 20, before coming back to earth with a more pedestrian 13.

These two guys are supposed to be the Pacers fourth and fifth options offensively. How many teams have a fourth option (George) let-alone a third player, who can drop 30 points? Is there one? 

More importantly for opposing defenses, how do you shut down a team that has six guys (when Hill comes back healthy) who are capable 20-point scorers?

That's the beauty of the Pacers. They have their standard offensive game plan built around getting Granger going on the perimeter and making sure Hibbert gets enough touches down low. At the same time, Coach Vogel understands that the two combined usually won't be enough to secure a win. Instead of running scripted plays to try and force a player into rhythm, he lets the game come to his players. You can see the process take shape early in every game. The Pacers starters get a sense for each other as to who besides Granger and Hibbert is feeling it and wants the ball. 

Whether it's in pregame warm-ups, early huddles or timeouts, Indiana obviously figures it out well before the defense, which has no idea what to focus on until it's too late. By then the X-factor—be it West, Collison, George, Hill or Hansbrough—is already in a grove.

It's a perfect strategy that leaves defenses helpless. If the defense switches their attention to the Pacers third option, Indiana goes back to Granger or Hibbert. And if the two Pacers stars are having an off night? No problem there either. All five Pacers are averaging double figures. Just like the Ocean movies, there is more than enough talent in the supporting cast to carry the load. 

It's hard enough to draw up defensive strategies for every team during a normal season. In this year's lockout shortened season where the schedule is compressed by about two months, it's almost impossible to thoroughly scout and prepare for each opponent.

Add in the fact that it's easier to key in on one player than be forced to defend all five, and it's no wonder that six different Pacers have at least co-led the team in scoring. David West is the only starter yet to hold the honor and given he's averaging almost 12 points per game, it won't be long before he adds his name to that list as well.

Exactly one-third of the way into the season opponents still can't figure Indiana out and because of their offensive balance and versatility and it's unlikely that they will. 

Finally, after initial growing pains of trying to get everyone to buy into the offensive philosophy and making sure each player knew his role and what was expected of him, the Pacers are starting to really click on the offensive end. Through the first 18 games the Pacers managed to break the century mark twice. In the last four games, they've scored 100 points or more three times.

If the Pacers can keep it up, Miami and Chicago may have a real threat on their hands. Expect the Pacers to be full of surprises come playoff time.