Throughout the season, the Indiana Pacers were considered one of the dark-horse contenders in the NBA. After clinching the third seed in the Eastern Conference, that thought was reinforced even further.
After knocking out the sixth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in somewhat of a shaky series—which included two blowout losses for the Pacers—the Pacers have found themselves with a 3-1 edge over another title contending faithful, the New York Knicks.
Forget about the dark-horse contender talk—the Pacers are legitimate title contenders this year and they've shown that they can go toe to toe with some of the best teams in the league.
Matchups in the East
The Pacers are leading the second-round series 3-1 against the Knicks, largely through playing a suffocating team defense that has forced them to shoot under 40 percent from the field in consecutive contests.
They definitely will have some trouble against the Heat, who eliminated them last year in the conference semifinals.
There's a bright side, though. They are 2-1 against the Heat this season, but the regular season record means very little at this point.
However, having a chance to defeat the defending champions means that the Pacers could certainly contend for the title this year. There isn't a better team in the Eastern Conference that could go head to head with the Heat and potentially eliminate them from the playoffs besides the Pacers.
The Pacers have registered the highest defensive efficiency during the regular season (per Hollinger's Team Stats), and defense has been this team's identity for the entire season.
This Pacers team doesn't have the same amount of talent as that Celtics' roster, but they are still a very talented bunch from Paul George down to Roy Hibbert.
There haven't been many teams that won with defense alone, but the Pacers' offense has been coming along quite nicely during the series against the Knicks as well.
Complete Team Effort
George is slowly climbing the ranks to being an elite player and superstar, but let's not get carried away.
The Pacers have become successful by playing team basketball on both ends of the floor. Four players average in double-digit scoring, and none average more than 17.4 PPG—which, coincidentally is George.
Their balanced attack on offense is crucial and it has been the difference maker in the series against the Knicks, who rely on just one or two players to score.
If the Pacers can continue their effort on both ends of the court and play team basketball, they can compete with any other elite team in the NBA. However, the real test will come during the conference finals if they get past the Knicks.