Indiana Pacers Are the NBA Powerhouse No One Is Talking About

Sean Hojnacki@@TheRealHojnackiFeatured ColumnistApril 14, 2013

Lance Stephenson says it all.
Lance Stephenson says it all.Jeff Gross/Getty Images

While the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat have captivated NBA fans this season, the Indiana Pacers continue to fly under the radar in the top-heavy Eastern Conference.

Between the saga that's been the Los Angeles Lakers' issues and a Western Conference stacked with tremendous talent, the Pacers have gotten precious little press for their incredible season.

Though they captured their first division title since 2004, most media attention has gone to speculating and debating about the prospect of Derrick Rose's return to the Chicago Bulls.

Meanwhile, Indiana has flourished despite the absence of its leading scorer for each of the last five seasons, Danny Granger.

He managed just five appearances this season, inefficiently scoring 27 points on 28.6 percent shooting in 74 minutes. He just wasn't right, and he finally underwent knee surgery in early April.

But the Pacers have prospered with a mix of punishing defense, great rebounding and surprising scoring from their handful of underrated stars.

I Tell Ya, I Get No Respect

The Pacers have become the Rodney Dangerfield of the NBA.

On March 6,'s blog asked a group of six writers, "Help those who would hate the Heat to win again: Can Indiana beat them?"

Four of the six writers gave Indy a puncher's chance, even though most qualified their arguments (one of Miami's Big Three would have to get hurt, or Roy Hibbert has to play his best basketball). At the very least, the consensus was that the Pacers would wrap up second place in the conference and figure to be favorites for the conference finals.

On March 18, the Knicks found themselves sinking at 38-26, one game behind Indiana for second place and mired in a four-game losing streak.

That evening, New York beat the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City despite playing without Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler. They won their next dozen games after that.

And with three games remaining in the regular season, New York faces Indy on Sunday afternoon with a comfy three-game lead for the No. 2 seed. Now the Knicks look destined to meet Miami for a chance at the NBA Finals. 

The Good

Indiana's defense has been so good this season that it almost belongs under a separate subheadline: "The Great." Its D is the stingiest in the East by a wide margin. Only the Memphis Grizzlies allow fewer points per game.

But when the Pacers defense is rated by points allowed per 100 possessions, it turns out they are in fact the best defense in the league by a full point. Opponents are shooting a league-low 41.9 percent against them.

Coach Frank Vogel has been a game manager this year, with Indy averaging the sixth-fewest possessions per game (per ESPN). Its slow pace lulls opponents to sleep, and its stout defense stifles them into submission. But it doesn't end there.

The Pacers have also been squeegeeing the glass all season long, leading the league in both team rebounds (45.9 per game) and rebounding differential (plus-4.9 per game). Their only possible area of improvement is on the offensive boards, where they are only third in the league.

Up and down the lineup, Indy plays hard-nosed basketball that wears opponents down with its toughness and physicality. And without Granger, a whole slew of Pacers have elevated their games on offense.

Paul George and David West have been absolute beasts in the frontcourt. They're both averaging over 17 points, 7.5 rebounds and a steal per game. Neither player averaged above 13 points last season. And George is even dishing 4.1 assists per game after 2.4 last year.

They sometimes get overshadowed by the double-double production and shot-blocking prowess of Roy Hibbert, but George and West have keyed the Pacers to a coveted and long-awaited division title.

George Hill has done a fine job running the point, leading the team in assists and averaging 14.3 points to boot. Lance Stephenson has filled in admirably at the 2.

Indy also boasts a bench mob led by the gangly but effective Tyler Hansbrough, while Ian Mahinmi and D.J. Augustin round out the unit. It's just too bad that electric dunker Gerald Green can't manage to stay healthy. 

The Bad

It hasn't been all smooth sailing without Danny Granger. 

The Pacers average just 94.9 points per game, putting them in the bottom third of the league. That's due in part to their methodical style of play, but mostly it's because their offensive production hasn't been impressive.

Indy ranks 18th in points scored per 100 possessions, and its effective field-goal percentage puts it 22nd, behind even the offensively inept Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers.

Ball movement has been one of the bugaboos for Indy this season. It ranks 27th in assists per game, and the top assist man registers only 4.7 (George Hill).

The Pacers also don't protect the ball particularly well, committing the ninth-most turnovers per game. It's not a good sign when a team that plays at a slow pace and struggles with ball movement also commits a lot of turnovers. 

Can They Really Beat the Heat? 

Indy won the first two contests against Miami, but it ran into a buzzsaw during the Heat's streak in its 105-91 loss on March 10.

They have a clear edge over Miami on the boards, though that is hardly sufficient to beat them. Dealing with the Big Three is like an Egyptian riddle.

Barring an injury, the Pacers will have to pick their poison. No rebounding advantage can account for LeBron James at his best.

The Pacers have molded themselves into a contender, but they're still an incomplete package. Next year could be a whole different story, as Granger's return will bolster their anemic offense.


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