Since the All-Star break, the Indiana Pacers have proven that they are the second-best team in the Eastern Conference.
With a 9-3 record in February, and the New York Knicks succumbing to injuries and mediocrity, there didn't seem to be any debate as recently as two weeks ago: Indiana is the only team with any prayer of preventing the Miami Heat from returning to the NBA Finals.
Lately, however, the Pacers have failed to impress.
They have continued to bully the weak, finishing off lopsided victories with a blend of physical, imposing defense and a newfound ability to light up the scoreboard.
But their inability to beat the league's better teams in recent weeks makes it appear as though this team won't be able to reach its potential if Danny Granger doesn't return healthy. That's a possibility that is increasing with each passing day.
After losing to the (mostly) Kobe Bryant-less Los Angeles Lakers Friday night at home—following recent losses to the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers—this is a reasonable conclusion.
But it's probably wrong.
The Pacers will be fine without Granger. Their (always small) chance to beat a team led by LeBron James in the playoffs may fall if he doesn't return to becoming a potent offensive weapon, but the Pacers remain the team most likely to face the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Pacers have the best defense in the NBA and are the only team that allows less than a point per possession, according to Basketball-Reference. The elite play of Paul George on the perimeter and Roy Hibbert at the rim are the most-visible reasons to point to, but the heart of the team's biggest strength is a cohesive system that every player in the rotation maintains.
There are several principles that make coach Frank Vogel's system so effective, but everything is based upon preventing teams from scoring at the hoop or beyond the three-point line. Forcing the opposition to settle for a huge portion of mid-range jumpers should continue to be a recipe for success.
Given that the pace of play generally falls in the playoffs, Indiana's ability to make teams miss shots will only be magnified in the postseason. And while Granger isn't a bad team defender, the starting-unit combination of George, George Hill and Lance Stephenson has proven to be an outstanding two-way perimeter force.
The combination of size, strength and quickness ensures that Indiana can close out on shooters, stay in front of penetrators and jump passing lanes. If Granger were to replace Stephenson in the starting lineup, there would be a drop off.
Pushing the Ball
Stephenson has become a wrecking ball in transition. As he has become more comfortable on the court during his first year in an NBA rotation, Stephenson has learned to exploit his greatest talents.
Several times per game, he now grabs a defensive rebound or receives a quick outlet pass and races down the court. His speed, physical stature, ball-handling ability and vision make him nearly impossible to slow down, and the result is usually a few easy hoops per game for Indiana.
From the bench, rookie Orlando Johnson has shown a similar penchant for getting out in transition. While not as scary as Stephenson in the open floor, he appears to be a capable scorer and a good shooter. This brings an added dimension to a bench unit that often struggles to put up points.
And it isn't just the guards who have embraced this style.
David West has also increasingly looked to push the ball. After nearly every rebound, he now turns to look for a long outlet, and seeing him loft a pass over the top to a streaking Paul George has become commonplace.
While Granger has in the past shown a savvy understanding of when to leak out in hopes of getting an easy hoop, the abilities of Stephenson and Johnson would be minimized by Granger's place in the rotation. Johnson, for example, may not even see the court.
The Pacers continue to struggle to draw fans. They are 26th in the NBA in attendance, according to ESPN. They are the only playoff team other than the Milwaukee Bucks to average fewer than 15,000 fans per night.
This means that Indiana is not a raucous place to play in the way that, say, Oklahoma City or Oakland can be. The Pacers, nonetheless, have the conference's second-best home record (26-8) after the Heat.
Currently, they have a one-game lead over the Knicks for the No. 2 seed and a two-game lead over the Brooklyn Nets. There are still 17 games remaining on Indiana's schedule—including contests with Brooklyn and at New York—so the team could relinquish its spot.
But with the Knicks battling injuries and the Nets playing 11 of their final 17 games away from home (including a brutal eight-game road trip from March 18-April 3), look for the Pacers to finish the season in second place.
Given that the Pacers rely on so many young players, having home-court advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs may prove critical.
Paul George's three-point shot, for example, has been dismal outside of the Hoosier State (31.5 percent on the road compared to 44.1, according to Yahoo! Sports). Hibbert's confidence and demeanor, meanwhile, can noticeably improve in the friendly confines of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
For the Pacers, where they play might be more important than who is on the court.
After the NBA trade deadline passed without much player movement, several basketball pundits said the Pacers were the deadline's big winner. Granger would soon return, they thought, and that was the biggest "acquisition" any NBA team would make.
Since we still don't know that he will even return—let alone play well—that idea hasn't come to fruition. And as crazy as it sounds, that may be for the best.
Neither Frank Vogel nor his players thought that reintegrating Granger into the rotation would be difficult, according to Tim Donahue of 8 Points, 9 Seconds, but it is impossible to know how the transition actually would have worked.
How would Stephenson respond to coming off the bench, for instance, after playing such a key role in a starting lineup that has statistically been every bit as good as that of Oklahoma City? The Pacers starters have outscored their opponents by 13.7 points per 100 possessions compared to 14.0 by the Thunder.
Instead, the team will not have to deal with such questions. The team with the best defense in the NBA will have no late-season wild cards.
If Granger had been able to return right after the All-Star break, it is altogether possible that he could have reclaimed his spot in the starting lineup and made this team even better. With his shooting and scoring punch, he could have given Indiana fans an extra sliver of hope that this team might actually be able to beat the Heat.
But even without him, the steady, reliable defense that the Pacers play makes this year's squad the only team with any chance.
So nothing, ultimately, has changed.
This franchise sent four teams to the Eastern Conference finals in the 1990s, but it hasn't advanced that far since 2004. The Pacers have improved each of the past two years, however, losing to the Chicago Bulls in the first round in 2011 and the Heat in Round 2 last year.
Their 2012-13 season will be defined by whether the Pacers can continue to show growth by making it even further this year. And since they are capable of making it to the conference finals with or without Granger, his health won't be the determining factor in how this season will be remembered in Indiana.
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