Less than three weeks ago, the Indiana Pacers were the talk of the NBA. After defeating the Miami Heat 94-75 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Pacers had a 2-1 lead on the team everyone "loves to hate."
Miami had no answer for Pacers' big man Roy Hibbert.
Indiana's defense made Dwyane Wade almost invisible.
However, as the series progressed, Wade looked like his old self and posted totals of 30, 28 and 41 points, while Hibbert's dominance was halted by the Heat.
Miami defeated Indiana 4-2 in the series and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics. The Pacers failed to play the role of David against the Miami Heat's Goliath, but they proved themselves to the world.
The Indiana Pacers are for real.
Although the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat are widely considered to be the two best teams in the East at full strength, Indiana has every ingredient needed to be an elite basketball team.
To be considered a complete lineup, a team must meet several criteria.
Point guard? Check.
Despite his name sounding more like that of a politician than an NBA star, George Hill can shoot, and his length makes him a nightmare for opposing point guards. Behind Hill, the Pacers boast another point guard capable of starting for an NBA team—Darren Collison.
Perimeter scorers? Check.
Between Paul George and Danny Granger, the Pacers feature two versatile scoring threats capable of shooting the three or taking it hard to the rim. Granger is an All-Star caliber player, who plays an important role not only to Indiana's offensive attack, but Frank Vogel trusts him to guard the opposing team's best player, even in the case of MVP LeBron James.
Post players that can score and block shots? Check.
In a league with only a handful of elite post players, Indiana certainly has one of the better ones in Hibbert. His 7'2" frame not only prevents offenses from attacking the lane, he also has the rare ability to step away from the basket and hit the mid-range jump shot. Alongside the All-Star center, forward David West is one of the NBA's most underrated players, and he's a true "tough guy."
There are any number of reasons to like the Pacers as a basketball team, but what makes Indiana a serious contender for years to come?
The NBA is driven upon its "star power." No other major sport relies as heavily on individual players more than pro basketball.
Most of today's top players are ultra-athletic swing men, but even more rare, and perhaps more valuable, are elite post players. Orlando, for the time being, has the league's top big man in Dwight Howard, and the Lakers have an elite post player in the often unpredictable Andrew Bynum.
After those two, Roy Hibbert is certainly in the conversation as to the NBA's third-best center.
Hibbert averaged 12.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game this past regular season, but his Game 3 performance of 19 points and 18 boards against the Miami Heat showed truly how dominant he can be.
Scheduled to make about $3.6 million next year, Hibbert is sure to receive a hefty paycheck next offseason.
Danny Granger is as well-known as he's ever been throughout his seven-year career.
However, although his name recognition has increased due to the Pacers playing in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Granger's average of 18.7 points per game was only his fifth-most productive season in terms of scoring.
What exactly does that mean? It means that Granger has been a legitimate All-Star for quite some time, and it's taken many fans too long to realize it.
Granger proved that he isn't afraid of anyone—as evident by going nose-to-nose with both Dwyane Wade and LeBron James this year in the playoffs—and that kind of attitude gains the respect of your teammates. If the Pacers are to make a deeper run into the playoffs, Granger's popularity will continue to rise.
Indiana features a variety of legitimate scoring threats: Hill, Granger and George can all hit the three, while West and Hibbert are one of the best post duos in basketball.
However, the Pacers are a stronger team on defense than they are offensively.
Hibbert and West do a tremendous job of blocking off the lane and intimidating opponents from attacking the rim, while Hill's length is a major disruption to opposing point guards.
Indiana's combination of lock-down guards and tough post defense vaulted the Pacers into the top 10 in the NBA in scoring defense, allowing just 94.4 points per game.
Championship teams are usually built around one star player; however, one common theme among consistent winners is a team-first approach to the game.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are a perfect example of how a team can benefit from utilizing a team-first approach but also how a team can fail to live up to its potential when they play as individuals.
As things currently stand, the Thunder look like the best team in the NBA. However, when Russell Westbrook decides to put the pedal to the metal and take questionable shots, he sometimes acts as Kevin Durant's best defender.
With all due respect to Danny Granger, who is a great player in his own right, the Pacers don't have a transcendent superstar player. As a result, Indiana knows its best chance to win consistently is to spread the ball around and play for the best shot.
With two capable post players and a plethora of athletic perimeter players, Indiana is a fun team to watch, and they're constructed by one of the game's all-time greats—Larry Bird.
Larry Bird was named the NBA's Executive of the Year for good reason.
Despite playing in a small market without much interest from star players, the gritty Indiana Pacers went 42-24 last season. Although they lost to the Miami Heat in six games, the third-seeded Pacers proved they belong among the Eastern Conference's elite teams.
Bird made an inspired choice when he hired Frank Vogel as head coach. Vogel has been very bold in demonstrating confidence in his team, to the point of being relatively outspoken at times. However, the 38-year-old coach has the respect of his young team, and it shows in testy game situations.
Bird's brilliance has extended further than the coaching staff, as he's quietly assembled one of the most complete rosters in basketball. Beyond his starting five, the Pacers feature the always hustling Tyler Hansbrough, the ultra-quick Darren Collison and the stingy Dahntay Jones off the bench.
Lou Amundson and Leandro Barbosa are both free agents, but with those two in the fold, Indiana boasted one of the best benches in the NBA.
Just as was the case when the Boston Celtics were winning championships in the 80s, the Indiana Pacers are in great shape with the ball in Larry Bird's hands.