After a disappointing end to their 2011-12 campaign, the Indiana Pacers are on their way to another playoff appearance. At 24-16, they lead the Central Division and are third in the Eastern Conference, just 2.5 games behind the Miami Heat.
Behind the strong play of Paul George and David West on offense and Roy Hibbert anchoring the defense, the Pacers have been able to keep teams from scoring while being able to score just enough to win.
They don't have the best offense, but their defense is as good as it gets in the NBA. The Pacers just have to continue doing what they've been doing all season long: playing defense and crashing the boards.
As long as they follow that formula, there's no doubt that they can be a legitimate playoff threat.
Note: All stats are as of Jan. 17, 2013.
They've proven they can beat the best, but they'll have to continue to do it as the season wears on. They still have two meetings with the Clippers and Heat and three remaining matchups with their divisional rival, Chicago.
The Pacers might only go as far as their defense takes them, but they've shown no signs of letting up, allowing just 85 points per game in the month of January.
Roy Hibbert and Paul George have been playing their best basketball during this month, and if they can build on that and carry it throughout the rest of the season, they can lead this team to a very deep playoff run.
Roy Hibbert's offense has improved in January. He has season averages of 9.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. In the new year, however, he has eclipsed the 10-point-average mark and is still rebounding at a good rate.
He also had his best game of the season against Milwaukee, posting 20 points and 15 rebounds in just 30 minutes of playing time.
While Hibbert's offense still leaves more to be desired, his defense is something that cannot be questioned. He has a defensive rating of 95 and is currently ranked fourth in the league in blocks with 2.7 per game.
The Pacers' frontcourt has been performing very well this season, and with their continued effort night in and night out, they could be the reason they overcome some of the elite teams in the East.
The Pacers lead the league in defensive efficiency and opponent shooting percentage, and that's what has allowed them to be where they are. Their offense lacks some firepower (29th in scoring), but behind their elite defensive play, they've been able to stay in games and shut down some of the best teams in the league.
They were able to hold both the Heat and Knicks to under 80 points, when both of those teams average over 100 per game.
The Pacers have some great individual defenders as well. Hibbert, George and West are all top 10 in the league in defensive rating.
Indiana also leads the league in rebounding (fifth in offensive boards). With the exception of Chicago, there aren't many playoff-contending teams in the East that can compete with the Pacers on the boards.
If the Pacers can keep dominating the glass and playing elite defense, they can make a lot of noise in the playoffs.
Danny Granger has been the Pacers' leading scorer the last five years, so there's no doubt that his return will spark the team. In the 2011-12 season, Granger averaged 18.7 points per game—something that will boost Indiana's low-scoring offense.
Granger will not only give them a new scoring option, but he'll also be able to provide solid three-point shooting (38.4 percent shooter from downtown). Indiana ranks among the bottom five teams in three-point shooting percentage, so that's something they can definitely take advantage of.
The Pacers hope to have him back by early February (via an Indy Star report). Once Granger is back to speed, he and George can be one of the better duos in the league, especially since George has become a fantastic player and scorer in his absence.
Paul George has not only become the Pacers' leading scorer, but he has shown that he can be one of the NBA's next superstars.
At 6'8" (Indy Star lists him at 6'10"), 221 pounds, George has the size of a forward, yet he has the speed and athleticism of a shooting guard.
George has emerged as the Pacers best option on offense; with the return of Granger just a few weeks away, George could be in line for even greater performances, as defenses will now have to focus on multiple threats.
He's also been playing at a very high level in 2013, posting six double-doubles in the eight games he has played. He's averaging 18 points and 10 boards in January.
George is capable of leading this team through the playoffs, but it will ultimately be up to the Pacers if they want him to be the focal point once Granger comes back.