The Indiana Pacers have quietly accumulated the third best record in the Eastern Conference and clinched the Central Division. They have guaranteed themselves home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and have a clear advantage over any first-round opponent they could potentially face.
Even without former All-Star Danny Granger in the lineup, this Pacers team is well-equipped with talent and depth few other Eastern Conference can boast about.
They possess one of the best young talents in the league in Paul George, a potential top-five center in Roy Hibbert and one of the best veteran leaders in David West. Every position from point guard to center is covered by quality players who play with incredible effort every game.
We all know how much George has improved since the start of this season, and part of it is credited to Granger's injury because it opened up more minutes for the young swingman to rise to prominence.
West, who had a mediocre season last year with the Pacers, bounced back and is putting up his usual All-Star-caliber numbers again. Per 36 minutes, West is recording 18.4 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists (per Basketball Reference), and he has been the team's most consistent offensive player throughout the season.
Hibbert slumped in the beginning of the season, but he has recently picked up his play tremendously. In the past eight games, he has averaged 21.5 PPG and 10.5 RPG on 55.6 percent shooting from the field. He's starting to find his groove at the perfect time in the season, and his contributions will be crucial to the team's success in the playoffs.
Matching Up Against the Elite
In contrast to the Pacers, the Miami Heat and New York Knicks are both in the top three in offensive efficiency this season (per Hollinger's Team Stats). They are also both in the top six in three-point field-goal percentage out of every other team in the league.
Unfortunately for them, the Pacers are first in the league in opponent's field-goal percentage and three-point percentage (per Team Rankings).
When playing against the Heat or Knicks, it would be a classic matchup of defense versus offense. The Pacers have the best defensive efficiency in the league, and they've held that spot for nearly the entire season.
Furthermore, George is one of the most versatile two-way players in the league. He can defend any player from Derrick Rose to LeBron James, and his unique mix of size, quickness and athleticism is only matched by a few players in this league.
Additionally, Hibbert is probably the biggest advantage the Pacers have against either of the two aforementioned teams. He's the biggest player on the court at all times, and pounds these mediocre rebounding teams on the glass.
Avoiding the Heat in the Second Round
The Pacers have won the regular-season series 2-1 against the Heat, but they still provide the most difficult competition for this squad.
They're four wins ahead of the Brooklyn Nets, so it's unlikely that they would drop to the fourth seed unless they experience a shocking turn of events.
The Pacers could handle the Hawks and Celtics, but the Bulls are still the biggest question mark because of one man—Derrick Rose. If Rose returns for the playoffs and plays like his former self, the Pacers will have a difficult time beating them in a seven-game series.
In the second round of the playoffs, the Pacers will probably face the New York Knicks—assuming the Knicks don't lose in the first round again.
They also won the season series 2-1 against the Knicks, and they've held them to an average of 85 points in the three games. Even in the one loss, the Pacers still held the Knicks to 88 points on 36.7 percent shooting from the field.
The Pacers have a good chance of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals and probably will match up against the Heat. It's still shaky whether or not they could get past the Heat and reach the Finals, but they definitely have a shot at defeating any team in the league.