The Pacers' 111-100 win over the San Antonio Spurs was important for a number of reasons.
It was a potential finals preview, with both teams looking like contenders in their respective divisions. It was a chance to exorcise some demons against a Spurs team that had beaten them 11 consecutive times. It was yet another showcase for the amazing Paul George, who demolished the Spurs with 28 points—26 of them coming in the first three quarters.
Most important, the Pacers got their first true statement road win of the season. Both of their losses came on the road—The Chicago Bulls ended Indy's season-opening winning streak in Chicago, and the up-and-coming Trail Blazers stopped them in Portland.
This Pacers team has relatively little to prove in the regular season. It reached Game 7 of the conference finals last season, and it has backed that up with a start that few teams have accomplished, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
Pacers: 4th team in NBA history to win at least 18 of their 1st 20 games after losing in the Conference/Division Finals the prior season— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 8, 2013
But there is one bugaboo that troubled the Pacers coming into the season: They have not been a good road team.
Road Wins and the Championship Formula
If the Pacers do indeed win the title this season, they will break a recent trend. Over the past few seasons, championship teams have been built by bringing together seasoned veterans from other teams, whether through trades or free agency. Think back to recent championship teams—the Miami Heat, the Dallas Mavericks, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics.
Those teams didn't need to go through the process of learning how to win in a hostile environment.
The Pacers are different. For all their talent, they are still extremely light on experience for a true contender. And their callowness often shows on the road.
Despite winning the Central Division and the third seed, last season's Pacers were a bad road team. In the regular season, they had one of the most drastic home-road splits in the league: 30-11 at home, 19-21 on the road. That road record might not look terrible, but it is not the mark of a true contender. Check out the regular-season road records for the last five teams to win a championship in an 82-game season. They are remarkably similar.
|Season||Team||Road W-L||Road Winning %|
This makes all the sense in the world: Championship teams win anywhere and everywhere. To run the NBA playoff gauntlet, you need to win on the road in the regular season, if only to secure home-court advantage.
As the games pile up in May and June, even first-round road wins can mean the difference between victory and defeat in the later rounds. Leading up to last season's Eastern Conference Finals Game 7, the Pacers had played three more games than the Heat because they went 2-4 on the road against the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks in the earlier rounds. Those games just pile on unneeded wear and tear.
To be champions of the world's best basketball league, you must reach a level of play that many players cannot even imagine. Watching this season's Pacers squad tear the Spurs apart on their own court is to witness a young team reaching for that level.
A Natural Evolution
There were a few other things the Pacers needed to work on this season if they wanted to take the next step. They needed to improve the consistency of their offense, and they needed to get decent production from their bench.
In the second quarter of Saturday night's game, they got plenty of both.
The Spurs looked ready to blow Indiana off the court in the early going, building a 32-20 lead early in the second quarter and slicing through the league's first overall defense with ease. But the Pacers turned the game around...surprisingly enough, with both George and Roy Hibbert on the bench.
A lineup of David West, Lance Stephenson, Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Orlando Johnson turned the game around, before George returned to the game and blew it open.
That second quarter, in which the Pacers scored 32 points and held the potent Spurs to 20, was a strong indicator of how far the Pacers have come. Last year's team was more than capable of holding a team like San Antonio to 20 points in a quarter, but it could not dig out of a double-digit deficit so quickly.
After the game, head coach Frank Vogel expressed his pride in the total team effort the Pacers put in, particularly in the middle two quarters.
Per The Associated Press (via ESPN):
I couldn't be happier with how they played, particularly in the second and third quarter. Second quarter, getting back in the game, but in the third quarter, really busting it open. Tough to pick a star in the game with as many contributions as we got. Just great balance and a great team win.
The Pacers have worked on their weaknesses over the past year, and they have emerged a more complete team. The rest of the league better watch out.