Miami Heat, beware.
The same team that pushed Miami to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals is off to a 7-0 start, becoming the 39th team in league history to open the season with seven straight wins. Indiana is also the only remaining undefeated contingent in the Association, adding further merit to its current cause.
Normally, we'd wait before crowning the Pacers a serious threat. After all, the Chicago Bulls were supposed to ruffle the Heat's feathers more than any other team this season. Shifting gears this early is frowned upon outside of circles that don't revel in the impulsive.
But we've seen enough of the Pacers, dating back to the playoffs, to know they put the Heat's potential three-peat in imminent danger. They play a largely antiquated brand of basketball, relying on a relatively simplistic offense and resolute defense to win games. And it's working. Like, really working.
LeBron James and the Heat, meanwhile, have struggled to maintain that killer instinct we've known them to demonstrate. It used to be that they could flip a switch, and away they'd go. So far, a decaying sense of urgency and defensive discipline has left the Heat sitting ducks against some of the league's most obvious tank jobs.
This early into the season, there's no pinpointing the trajectory of an entire campaign. The Heat can be better and elevate their game. Early onset struggles could transition into strengths. Between now and this spring, almost anything can change.
One thing's for sure, though: Miami will spend all year looking over its shoulders and directly into the eyes of those meddlesome Pacers.
Brace yourselves, because the Pacers could be headed for a historic season.
Last year, they led the league in defensive rating, allowing just 99.8 points per 100 possessions. This year, they're already topping the league with a 92.3 defensive rating, nearly four points better than the second-place Golden State Warriors.
Assuming the Pacers were able to bankroll this same gritty attitude all season, they would be just the second team in NBA history to post a defensive rating under 93.
Laugh at me for considering such a thing seven games into the season if you must, but only if you're stupid.
These are the Pacers. What we're seeing defensively isn't a mirage—it's the real thing. They've already held three current top-11 offenses—Detroit Pistons, New Orleans Pelicans and Toronto Raptors—to under 92 points. Oh, and none of their other opponents have scored more than 91 points either.
Ruining opposing offenses is their job, and business is booming. And if it continues to boom, the entire NBA, Miami included, is in trouble.
In 2012-13, Miami went 1-2 against Indiana. If we count the playoffs, the Heat were 5-5, hardly a convincing win-loss record. They struggled against bigger and defensively superior opponents. That's most of the reason why a Derrick Rose-less Bulls team managed to go 2-2 against the Heat last season.
Picture an even more defensively refined version of the Pacers, the one we're seeing now. Does that bode well for a Heat team who has already dropped two games to the lottery-bound Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers?
Not unless their goal is to take a year off from making an NBA Finals appearance.
Mediocre Offense Makes for Dominant Basketball
When you're as defensively sound as the Pacers, you don't need a terrific offense to lead the way. Sickly sets aren't a desirable quality either, but so long as you're average, you can join the NBA's elite ranks.
Make no mistake, the Pacers offense is permitting them to keep pace with the elite.
They presently rank 17th in offensive efficiency, up from 20th last season (for now). Where they didn't have a player notching 20 points a night on a consistent basis, they now have the maxed-out Paul George, who is torching defenses for 25.1 every game. And where four players averaged in double figures last year, five are doing so this season.
More impressively, Indy's scoring unit comes with David West, Roy Hibbert and George Hill averaging fewer points per game. Lance Stephenson's continued development (14.4 points a night) coupled with George's new-found ability to take over games has given the Pacers a new dynamic they weren't able to tap a season ago.
Their bench still ranks second-to-last in points contributed, a growing concern as the season wears on. But collectively, they're still shooting a searing 39.4 percent from deep and 45.4 percent overall.
Pretty or not, this offense is playing better. Having that go-to, 20-plus points scorer gives them a greater chance late in close games and mitigates the continued absence of Danny Granger.
That's what great teams do—they overcome obstacles. Granger isn't playing, and Hill, West, Hibbert and the bench aren't pitching in like they should. But the Pacers remain afloat and have reached a point where their offense isn't the liability it was last season.
Scary thoughts all around if you don't reside in Indy.
The Eastern Conference is a mess—in a bad way.
Philadelphia is currently tied with the Heat for the second-best record in the conference, and only three teams are above .500. Staying true to form, trolls will once again point out that it's early.
But I don't care.
This wasn't how things were supposed to start. The Heat are barely over .500, the Bulls are playing like they were better off without Rose and the Brooklyn Nets are closing out games like an expensive disaster. Those New York Knicks are hardly worth mentioning at the moment, and after them, every other team is playing as if it's actively trying not to make the playoffs.
Some will still take a handful of Western Conference teams over the Pacers. I'm just not one of them. To get to the NBA Finals, the Heat have to get through the Eastern Conference first. The way things are shaping up, that stipulates they play through the Pacers in the quarterfinals.
And the way they're playing, compared to how the Pacers are playing, that just wouldn't happen if the postseason started today.
Not Too Early to Tell
For three-plus years, it's been the Heat and everyone else. That hasn't changed. Yet.
Until they're displaced from their current throne, the Heat are the team to beat. But until now, there hasn't been a team that could beat them.
Say what you will about the Celtics in 2012 and Pacers in 2013. What they each did was incredible, but no one saw it coming. Those teams came out of nowhere.
Throughout the regular season, we've heard all about them. Even when they've entered a rut, the competition has been thin. They're the Heat. It takes more than a rough patch to derail them.
The same is true now. Seven games isn't enough to judge them of all teams.
Does their 28th-ranked defense need tweaking? Absolutely. Is LeBron's back a concern? Sort of. Are Dwyane Wade's knees still breakable? You bet.
None of that is enough to write them off. Not now. Not the Heat.
Finally, however, there's a team playing like they're prepared for the Heat's best. Defensively stingy, offensively adequate(ish) and headlining an Eastern Conference in complete disarray, the Pacers are that team.
Which Eastern Conference team has the best chance at dethroning the Heat?
"A year ago we don't win a game like this," George said after his Pacers pulled one out against the Nets, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst.
A year ago, we don't pick them to win a game like that. We don't pick them to sit atop the Eastern Conference, even seven games in.
A year ago, prior to the postseason, we don't pick anyone to legitimately dethrone the Heat.
This year we have the Pacers, who are built to be a legitimate threat to the champions.
*All stats from this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise attributed and are accurate as of November 10, 2013.