Indiana Pacers' 3 Biggest Surprises from Season's 1st Half

Jason MarcumCorrespondent IIIJanuary 10, 2014

Indiana Pacers' 3 Biggest Surprises from Season's 1st Half

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    With 35 games under their belt, the Indiana Pacers have the best record in the Eastern Conference and once again look like an NBA championship contender. 

    Some pleasant surprises have helped Indiana come roaring out of the gates to start the year, while some disappointments have caused the Pacers to stay within striking distance of the Miami Heat in terms of having the best record and home-court advantage throughout the NBA playoffs.

    Here are the three biggest surprises of the Pacers' first half of the 2013-14 NBA season.

Suffocating Defense

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    Defense has been the strength of the Pacers since Frank Vogel became the head coach, but they've actually improved over the past few years and are now redefining just how well an NBA team can defend in today's offensive-driven league.

    Here are the top five teams in defensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference

    1. Indiana Pacers, 95.5
    2. Chicago Bulls, 100.1
    3. Golden State Warriors, 100.8
    4. Oklahoma City Thunder, 101.3
    5. San Antonio Spurs, 101.5

    The Pacers lead this category thanks to several factors. They lead the league with a .446 opponent effective field-goal percentage and allow a league-low 88.6 points per game.

    They're also third in the NBA with 6.0 blocks per game, thanks to center Roy Hibbert. His 2.69 blocks per game are second in the league behind the New Orleans Pelicans' Anthony Davis (3.15 per game), who's playing five more minutes per game.

    Indiana's strategy is to play tight perimeter defense and force players to drive into the paint, where Hibbert or even Ian Mahinmi is waiting to block or alter shots.

Depth Behind Hibbert

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    Speaking of which, despite playing just 15.7 minutes per game, Mahinmi is 15th in the NBA with 2.61 blocks per 48 minutes. He is allowing the Pacers to keep up the defensive intensity when Hibbert is on the bench in foul trouble or getting rest.

    His minutes may decrease once the playoffs come around, but regardless, his presence allows the Pacers more opportunities to rest Hibbert during the regular season so that he's not fatigued in the postseason.

    He also gives the team confidence that it doesn't have to dramatically change the defense in the playoffs when Hibbert goes to the bench in foul trouble. Mahinmi can be tasked with defending the paint against the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

    That was one of Indiana's biggest weaknesses last year against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, when Mahinmi averaged a mere 8.4 minutes per game in that series. 

    The team appears to have more confidence this year in the sixth-year pro, and if that's the case, the Pacers may finally have enough interior depth to beat the Heat and advance to the NBA Finals. 

Shooting Woes

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    Not having enough offense has also prevented the Pacers from getting to the NBA Finals. The 2013 Eastern Conference Finals saw the Pacers and Heat tied at 2-2, and Indiana lost two of the next three by scoring just 76 and 79 points in those defeats.

    This year, with the return of Danny Granger and Paul George entering his fourth season in the league, the offense was expected to make a bigger jump.

    But after finishing 23rd in the NBA with 94.7 points per game last year, the Pacers have only managed to improve to 97 points, which is 20th in the league.

    Much of that has to do with the shooting slump they're in to start the new year, according to Candace Buckner of The Indianapolis Star

    Over the last six games, the Pacers have shot 42.3 percent, a dip from 46.0 in the first 29 games. Furthermore, within a smaller sample size of the past three games against Cleveland (Jan. 5), Toronto (Jan. 7) and Atlanta (Jan. 8), Indiana has the third-lowest shooting percentage in the league at .397 — topping sub-.500 teams Orlando and Detroit.

    The biggest contributor to the shooting woes has been George. After averaging 23.5 points per game over the first 30 games, he's averaging a mere 18.2 points over the last five.

    There is a concern that the team is relying on his offense too much. When he has an off night, the likelihood of a loss jumps significantly.

    That's not the case with teams like the Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, who have multiple scoring options, which allow their best players to have off nights and still win big games. 

    The Pacers are doing a lot of good things right now, but if they can't improve their scoring from players other than George, it's hard to see them finally breaking through to the NBA Finals.