The Indiana Pacers eliminated the New York Knicks in Game 6 on May 18, giving themselves a chance to prove they've grown enough over the past year to do more than make a decent showing against the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
LeBron James and Co. knocked the Pacers out of the postseason in six games last year, but the team that fell in the Eastern Conference Semifinals hardly resembles the one that'll be taking the floor this time. Changes in personnel and philosophy, not to mention the general maturation of the club, have created a Pacers team that is far better equipped to handle the imposing Heat.
For starters, the player who made headlines for all the wrong reasons during last year's postseason run is making them for the right ones this time around.
Lance Stephenson got plenty of attention for making a "choking" gesture toward James in Game 3 of last year's series. At the time, Indiana's shooting guard was little more than an end-of-the-bench reserve. In fact, he logged a grand total of seven minutes in the six-game series between the Pacers and Heat last year.
Now, though, Stephenson is a starter and an integral part of what Indiana does on both ends of the floor.
His hustle sets the tone for Indiana's scrambling defense, and even though he's not the most skilled offensive player, he has proved himself capable of doing serious damage as a cutter and in transition.
If the Heat have any doubt about how much Stephenson has grown, they'll only have to look at his Game 6 performance against New York, in which he piled up 25 points, 10 rebounds and three assists on 9-of-13 shooting.
Plus, he's gone nearly a full year without giving a "choke" sign to any opposing superstars. Clearly, he's learned to let his play (and not his sophomoric gestures) do the talking.
Stephenson's not the only Pacer to have experienced major growth since last year's postseason clash with the Heat.
Paul George was officially recognized as the NBA's most improved player this year, an honor he earned by taking on the leadership role vacated by an injured Danny Granger. George developed into one of the NBA's premier perimeter defenders during the 2012-13 campaign, and his value as a defensive option against James can't be overstated.
Paul George wanted a rematch vs. Heat. He watched film of last year's series repeatedly last summer. He was disappointed he didn't do more.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) May 19, 2013
In last year's series, George was only the Pacers' fifth-leading scorer, accumulating nearly as many personal fouls (18) as made baskets (19).
In his most recent postseason action, though, George has proved that he's become nothing less than a dominant two-way star. In the just-completed series against the Knicks, George averaged 19.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game while hounding Carmelo Anthony into a number of ugly shooting performances.
And during the 2012-13 season, George did a better job than anyone in his efforts to slow James down. Nobody can handle LBJ alone, but George now comes closer than most.
Speaking of defense, one of the biggest things the Pacers have learned over the past year is that they'll go as far as their scheme and defensive discipline can take them.
Two years ago, Indiana allowed 100.4 points per 100 possessions, which ranked 10th in the NBA. But this past season, Frank Vogel somehow got his team to buy into his defensive plans hook, line and sinker.
The result has been a team that almost never permits open threes from the corner or easy looks at the rim. George Hill, Stephenson and George are now experts at running shooters off of the line and forcing them into Roy Hibbert's space, where the big man gobbles up penetrators like a 7'2" "Hungry, Hungry Hippo."
Put those things together and it's easy to see why Indiana made an improvement of nearly four points per 100 possessions and easily led the NBA in defensive efficiency in 2012-13.
Objectively, Indiana is not yet on Miami's level. The Pacers' bench is still woefully thin, and if the Heat push the tempo at all, Hibbert loses a great deal of his effectiveness. All that notwithstanding, the Pacers did take two out of three from the Heat this year, including an impressive 87-77 win on Jan. 8 in which George outscored and out-rebounded James.
Ultimately, the Pacers have learned a few things since they fell to the Heat in last year's playoffs. But more importantly, they've seen their young players blossom, their defense morph into an elite weapon and their confidence explode.
All season long, it has seemed like the Pacers were the team that could give Miami the best run for its money in the East. Now, a year older and still nursing the pain of last year's bitter defeat, the Pacers will get their chance to do just that.
*All stats via NBA.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise indicated.