The Indiana Pacers have seemingly cruised their way to the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
I used the term "cruised" because it seems like they got there rather quietly. They started off the season slowly, going 10-10 in their first 20 games of the season. Starting from early December, the team went on a tear, winning 32 of their next 48 games, but they're still not talked about as much as the Miami Heat, New York Knicks or even the Chicago Bulls.
The facts are written on paper.
The Pacers have compiled the second-best record in their conference, and have won the season series against both the Heat and the Knicks.
Even without Danny Granger, who was the best player on the team for the past five seasons, the Pacers have developed into one of the powerhouses in the league. The Heat is the team to beat in the East, but the Pacers are the team that nobody wants to face in the playoffs.
Indiana currently has the best defensive efficiency in the league, allowing opponents to score just 95.6 points per 100 possessions (per Hollinger's Team Stats).
If the Pacers' offense is struggling, which has definitely happened at times during the season, they always have their exceptional team defense to fall back on.
Obviously a team can't win by just playing defense. The Pacers had one of the league's worst offenses for most of the season, but have caught up a bit and put themselves at 19th in the NBA in offensive efficiency.
For the past few seasons, teams have won championships without maintaining one of the top defenses in the league. Furthermore, there has only been one team that ranked outside of the top 15 in offensive efficiency and won a championship in the past decade, and that was the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons.
However, this team is filled with proven scorers, along with an emerging star in Paul George. David West and Danny Granger—although he's injured—have averaged over 20 points per game in multiple seasons throughout their career.
Granger, who was supposed to bring a major lift to the Pacers' offense, has continued to suffer from recurring knee problems, but the Pacers still found new ways to score points without him on the floor.
There's much more to the Pacers' season beyond the defense and Paul George's emergence. Nobody looks at anybody else on the team and expects them to be a huge game changer, but they collectively form one of the best starting units and quality benches in the league.
George Hill is having the best season of his career, and he's proven to be a solid starting point guard for this team. He's a very underrated defender at his position, and he's holding opposing point guards to a PER of just 11.9 this season (per 82games.com).
Hill is quietly developing into one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and his size allows him to guard either backcourt position, which would certainly be helpful during the playoffs.
Lance Stephenson is another young player who's quickly rising. He could probably be in consideration for the NBA's Most Improved Player if he wasn't overshadowed by his own teammate—Paul George.
The major advantage that the Pacers have come playoff time is undoubtedly their big man, Roy Hibbert. He's been quiet and inconsistent the whole season, but remains the biggest key to Indiana making a long postseason run. Hibbert can break out at any given time, and when he does, the Pacers are pretty much unstoppable.
All three of the aforementioned players have been under the radar, but all of them are capable of making a big impact on the outcome of a game.
One of the biggest stories in the NBA this season is the rise of young swingman Paul George. With Granger's injury, he's taken the league by storm and taken huge strides in his game, even garnering his first All-Star selection.
Although he's having a great season, averaging 17.6 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 4.0 APG and 1.7 SPG, he hasn't broken out in the playoffs yet.
I fully expected George to take a bigger leadership role as the best player on the team and carry the Pacers on his shoulders. There isn't anybody else on the team who's capable of recording monstrous performances on a consistent basis, except for maybe David West.
Even though George has yet to demonstrate his ability to take over a game by himself, he certainly has all the tools necessary to have a breakout playoff campaign.
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