If conventional, talking-head wisdom controlled your NBA brain, you might be surprised to hear that there are NBA contenders that reside outside the cities of Miami, Chicago, Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Los Angeles.
But, worry not Hoosier State hoops fanatics, even the basketball media elite can no longer ignore what the Indiana Pacers are accomplishing on a nightly basis.
An overall record of 35-22.
Currently the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
But, even with what seems like a nightly validation of the Pacers' competitive chops, the boldest of Pacers' fans might still speak with meekness when uttering this seemingly ludicrous claim.
The Indiana Pacers are NBA title contenders.
Need some warrants for that claim?
Here are five reasons why the Indiana Pacers, yes the Indiana Pacers, are legitimate title contenders.
Quick, which NBA frontline comes to mind when you hear the words "dominant collection of big men?"
The Los Angeles Lakers?
The Chicago Bulls?
The Charlotte Bobcats? (Just kidding.)
I can't blame you if the Indiana Pacers don't come to mind. This is the same team that used "Reggie Miller plus four role players" as its roster for more than a decade.
But, this bunch of Pacers brings a legitimate, tenacious mentality to the low post on a nightly basis.
It all starts with 2012 All-Star Roy Hibbert. Hibbert has been the definition of rock solid this season (12.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.98 bpg, 49.6% FG). But, his impact on the defensive end can't be quantified through statistics. Hibbert uses all of his 7'2" frame to anchor the Pacers' defense and effectively stop dribble penetration by opposing offenses.
Following Hibbert's lead is one of the biggest pickups of the offseason: forward David West. As a New Orleans Hornet, David West was one of Chris Paul's favorite targets, a versatile 6'8" forward who can score both inside and outside. West has been that and more for the Pacers, chipping in 12 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. West's versatility has been an integral component in Indiana's success this season, stretching the defense against bigger defenders and posting up smaller defenders.
Throw in leading scorer Danny Granger (who has underperformed this year, but is still a great scorer), Psycho T (Tyler Hansbrough) and second-year forward Paul George, and you have the makings of the NBA's most underrated frontline.
So, next time you hear national pundits floating Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, or Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, don't forget to mention The Indiana duo of Hibbert and West.
They've earned it.
If you're an Indiana Pacers fan, you couldn't have dreamed up a better path laid for your team for the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs.
For the last nine games of the regular season, the Pacers play only two teams currently with a winning record. The first is a set of games with the sputtering Philadelphia 76ers who have lost four in a row and seven of their last 10 games. The other game, against the Chicago Bulls, is the last game of the season, when playoff seeds will likely be settled.
If that weren't enough, four of the other games are against three of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference (Toronto Raptors, Cleveland Cavaliers and the Detroit Pistons). Not a bad way to coast into the playoffs.
Their first-round opponent as of this writing is the ongoing drama capital of basketball, the Orlando Magic. The Magic, which recently just experienced its second six-game losing streak of the season, were blown out twice in a one-week period by the Linsanity-less and Amare-less New York Knicks.
If the Magic continue their free-fall down the standings, the Pacers will be matched up with the aforementioned New York Knicks. This match-up is favorable for Indiana for a multitude of reasons.
First, the Knicks will be trying to re-integrate Jeremy Lin and Amare Stoudemire into a lineup that has been clicking on all cylinders as a result of running isolation plays for Carmelo Anthony. Integrating Lin and Stoudemire back in the flow of the system might eventually work if they had some regular season games to accomplish this. Unfortunately for the Knicks, the duo won't be reunited until the first round of the playoffs at the earliest, potentially against these Pacers.
Second, outside of Tyson Chandler, the New York Knicks don't have the defensive and offensive balance in the frontcourt to matchup with Hibbert, West, Hansbrough and George. Carmelo Anthony is great, just not on defense. If these two teams meet in the first round, look for the big men of the Pacers to wreak havoc in the post.
With the favorable path the Pacers have into the first round of the playoffs, this should give the team considerable confidence as they head into playoff series against tougher opponents like Miami, Chicago or Boston. A win in these series is not guaranteed by any means (Indiana will be underdogs in all three potential matchups), but the Pacers, a team brimming with confidence that can go nine deep, will be a tough out, regardless of the matchup.
One indicator of potential playoff success is the prized ability to win on the road.
As one of only seven teams in the NBA currently with a winning record in opposing arenas (16-14), count the Indiana Pacers as members of that select group.
In addition, these wins haven't come against a group of Wizards and Bobcats, but against some of the best teams in the NBA. The Pacers count among their road conquests double-digit victories over the Orlando Magic (by 21), Boston Celtics (by 13) and Dallas Mavericks (by 11). In addition, the Pacers procured hard fought victories against two of the best home-teams in the association: the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls.
Despite being a young group, the Pacers have shown amazing resolve in overcoming the built-in disadvantages road teams have in hostile arenas. Whether it be depth, offensive and defensive balance (we're getting there) or pure will, the Indiana Pacers have consistently illustrated the mettle and mental resolve necessary to pull out games when least expected.
This trait could pay huge dividends come playoff time.
The national media may not be paying much attention to the Indiana Pacers, but there is at least one medium that is a Pacers fans: advanced statistics, especially on the defensive end.
According to the advanced basketball metrics website Hoopdata.com, the Pacers rank in the top 10 in the NBA in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions), opponent effective field goal percentage (weighted efficiency, adjusted for three-pointers) and opponent turnover rate (percentage of possessions ending in a turnover).
These three statistics, though relatively new, can be legitimized in more conventional terms to extrapolate an important reality about this team's defensive capabilities. They illustrate that the Pacers play lock down defense, force opponents into tough shots and get them to turn the ball over a lot.
Not a bad trio of defensive qualities come playoff time.
But, don't sleep on these Pacers on the offensive end either.
What's their most impressive offensive statistics? All five starters (Roy Hibbert, David West, Danny Granger, Paul George and Darren Collison) average more than 10 points per game. This offensive balance is vital because it makes the Pacers tough to defend in crunch time. The Pacers do not rely on one player like Kobe Bryant for the Lakers or Carmelo Anthony for the Knicks. Instead, they play inside-out basketball with a bevy of big men who can score in the post and guards who can knock down the perimeter shot.
With such balance on both the offensive and defensive end, don't be surprised to see the so-called "Big Boys" of the league looking pretty small come playoff time when matched up with the young bunch from Indy.
Indiana Pacers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
You've heard about their front court presence, perused through their forthcoming schedule, listened diligently when their road record was discussed and (hopefully) been persuaded about their offensive and defensive balance.
Now, you may be asking, so what?
There's only one question that really matters when hashing out a team's potential playoff chances: Can they beat the best teams?
If that question provides the ultimate measurement, consider the Pacers more than worthy of passing the test.
Not only do the Pacers own the series sweep over two of the top three seeds in the Western Conference (the No. 1 seed Oklahoma City Thunder and the No. 3 seed Los Angeles Lakers), but are currently tied in their season series with two of their biggest Eastern Conference rivals: the Chicago Bulls (one game a piece) and the Boston Celtics (two games a piece).
The two teams that have had the most success against the Pacers are the Orlando Magic and the Miami Heat, with each team winning the season series three games to one. Yet, as we previously discussed, the losses against the Magic came early in the season, before the Stan Van Gundy-Dwight Howard soap opera took full effect. If the Magic do end up being the Pacers foe in the first round, expect that series to end in a decidedly different fashion than it did in the regular season.
Which leaves those darn Heatles.
Yes, with the Heat's incomparable athletic ability, terrifying transition game and suffocating defense, they present a huge obstruction to the Pacers' title hopes. But, even with the odds stacked against them, the Pacers have largely outperformed expectations all season long. Who is to say that, even against the mighty "Big Three," the Pacers couldn't pull out the magic one more time?