After a beatdown of the surging Los Angeles Clippers, the Eastern Conference's top team extended its record to an NBA-best 32-7, putting it on pace for a scorching 67-15 mark on the year. The Pacers now have a sizable lead over the Miami Heat and the rest of the East, and it's going to be awfully tough to catch them.
According to Basketball-Reference, this dominant squad entered the game with a historically excellent 94.8 defensive rating, one that puts them ahead of everyone else in the NBA by almost six points per 100 possessions.
Even though Chris Paul wasn't in the lineup for the Jan. 18 contest, it was still an important one for Indiana because it was one of those games that truly made the team overcome obstacles.
David West was ejected for a flagrant-2 foul on Blake Griffin at the end of the first half, stupidly sweeping his arm across the LAC power forward's face after the buzzer sounded. They were childishly skirmishing for a rebound that doesn't even count.
While West is having a lackluster season from a numbers standpoint, he's still a leader for the Pacers and a truly crucial cog on both ends of the court. His physical defense and cerebral offensive play have value that goes well beyond the numbers.
Things were sure to be tough in the second half, even though the Pacers entered the third quarter with a 16-point lead. And it only got tougher when Luis Scola got into foul trouble, forcing Danny Granger to come in and attempt to corral Griffin.
At one point, the run-loving Clippers cut the Indiana lead to 10 points, but then Indiana ran away with things. Oh, and George did this:
Monstrous dunks that channel Vince Carter at the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest aside, this was a huge victory for Indiana for so many reasons. Not only did the team successfully stave off a run and overcome ejection-related obstacles, but it knocked off one of the true contenders in the Western Conference. Even though CP3 has been out, the Clippers have still been red-hot thanks to the dominant play of Griffin.
This was a minor obstacle in the grand scheme of the season, though.
The second half will be filled with them, and it's up to Frank Vogel to get his team past them all.
What Are the Obstacles?
Stagnancy is the biggest one of all.
The Pacers can't afford to get bored and stop playing the best basketball they're capable of playing, simply because they've grown tired of dominating. Their level of effort has been fantastic throughout the season, and it stands in stark contrast to what's going on in South Beach, where the Miami Heat are coasting through the season in a somnambulatory state.
Whether this happens on an individual or team-wide basis, it's still a possibility.
George isn't just going to quit trying, but what if he loses his mental edge? What if he starts thinking about how easy things have become for the Pacers and then stops playing with 100 percent of his energy each and every night?
This is a team that's outscoring its opponents by an average of 9.9 points per contest. That's a ridiculous margin, and it's No. 1 in the NBA with ease. The San Antonio Spurs have the second-best margin, and they check in at 7.7.
If any team is going to get a little bored, it's this one. No team in the NBA has been better, after all.
Also working against Indiana is the schedule.
According to Basketball-Reference, the Pacers have played a tougher schedule than only the Charlotte Bobcats, Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat. Even though they play in the Eastern Conference, it's bound to get more difficult during the second half, and that allows the possibility of standings slippage.
Between the Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics, there are quite a few teams in the East that are getting better. The combination of that increased intra-conference difficulty and the inherent toughness of inter-conference play indicates that the going will get tougher for Indiana.
Coasting is not OK. It won't work.
How Can the Pacers Stay Motivated?
The Pacers need to find some sort of drive beyond the one they already have. In a way, it's just about carrying over the motivating factors that are already spurring them on to first-half greatness.
And there are three ways to do so.
First, keep thinking that no one believes in them.
After all, how many people actually do?
Even though they're universally recognized as one of the elite teams in the NBA, not just the East, there don't seem to be too many people—other than the avowed Heat haters—who are willing to pick them over Miami. Given the way they've dominated and the Heat's struggles to keep pace, one would think Indiana would be the prohibitive favorite to advance through the Eastern Conference Finals.
But is it?
Bovada's last update, on Jan. 18, had the Heat as the odds-on favorite to win the NBA title. Miami checked in with 21-10 odds, and the Pacers were in No. 2 at 13-4. And that was before Indiana dominated the Clippers and Miami needed overtime to beat the Bobcats.
Seems strange, right? But hey, betting odds are typically influenced by the gambling tendencies of the public, so that should say something.
Slowly but surely, the basketball world is beginning to accept Indiana's supremacy in 2013-14, but the "nobody believes in us" card should still be applied by Vogel. For whatever reason, there isn't universal acceptance that the Pacers, not the Heat, are the team to beat.
Secondly, the Pacers need to have a specific goal. In this case, they should be aiming to have the greatest defense of all time.
On Jan. 9, I published an article claiming that Indiana is indeed on pace to be the top defensive unit in basketball history, and the team has only gotten stronger since then. Its defensive rating has dropped another 0.7 points per 100 possessions, and it's now on an even better pace.
There's no one number that can be used as an overarching benchmark, but Vogel can talk to his team about the great defenses of the past. He can show them clips of the 2004 Detroit Pistons, the 1999 San Antonio Spurs, the Chicago Bulls under Michael Jordan and all of the other premier defenses littering the annals of basketball history.
Then he can challenge them to be better.
Actually earning respect as the No. 1 defense of all time isn't important. Having George, Hibbert, Stephenson, West and everyone else believe no one has ever been better is.
And that should be within reach. It's an attainable goal, even if it's a ridiculously impressive one.
But both of those motivations pale in comparison to the final one:
Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals.
It's not about the result, but rather the fact that the Pacers had to feel deflated when they fought hard throughout the series and had to play the final game away from the comfort of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
They can't afford to let that happen again.
After a victory over the Brooklyn Nets early in the season, one that pushed them to a perfect 7-0 mark, West spoke about this to ESPN's Brian Windhorst:
We believe in this locker room that we can get the No. 1 seed and we started the year with that attitude. The fact that Game 7 of the conference finals wasn't in our home building we felt was the difference in a trip to the Finals, and we're going to do everything in our power to get a Game 7 in our building. And we have to start from the beginning of the season.
And Vogel agreed:
If we're going to have playoff success, having home-court advantage would give us an edge. We were 8-1 at home in the playoffs last year. To lose a Game 7 on the road, that's a tough environment. We're trying for that No. 1 seed. We're going for it.
Everything points toward another showdown between the two elite teams in the East, and it feels like it's going to go the distance. Miami might not be playing as well as Indiana, but the team is coasting, and it will be able to turn on the jets when the postseason rolls around.
The Pacers need every advantage possible, and home-court advantage is a big one.
The mental boost is big enough in the first six games of the inevitable postseason clash, and then there's an even larger advantage when the fans actually start cheering.
B/R's Josh Martin has the Pacers as the No. 1 team in his midseason power rankings, writing, "As it turns out, it may not be too early for the Heat to start worrying about home-court advantage in the playoffs."
But it's not too early for the Pacers to start worrying about it either.
Anything it takes to gain motivation for what needs to be a dominant second half.