After pushing the Heat to six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, and taking some chunks out of their more heralded opponents in the process, the Pacers were projected to compete for the second seed in the East behind Miami this season.
No more hiding in the friendly confines of Bankers Life Fieldhouse with a bunch of no-name players and a coach who was once a baby-faced video coordinator for Rick Pitino. The Pacers had arrived, as Larry Bird’s plan to build a moderately salaried team with no prima donnas came to fruition.
The Pacers were not only ready to take the Central Division from the Bulls but also ready to take on the Heat and the NBA.
Those ideas apparently were foiled when Danny Granger, the closest thing Indiana has had to an All-Star since Reggie Miller, was declared out for at least three months because of patellar tendinitis.
Granger is beginning to show signs of returning and he’ll be welcomed back by a team that has grown exponentially in his absence because it had to. Without their leading scorer, the Pacers had to depend on a stingy defense, the flourishing of Paul George, and the leadership of David West, who rejected the opportunity to sign with the Celtics to play in Indiana.
The Pacers were 19-14 entering Saturday night’s game despite big man Roy Hibbert adjusting slowly to life as one of the league’s highest-paid players (he’ll make $14.2 million this season).
“Without Danny, we had to make some adjustments and stabilize how we’re going to play on the offensive end,” said coach Frank Vogel, a former Celtics assistant on Pitino’s staff. “When that started to come, the wins started to come.
“It’s been a challenge. What it does is, your bench guys can step up and fill a decent enough role with the starters — you get by there, but you lose the bench. Your bench becomes your third-string guys. That’s become a greater challenge than making up for what we’re getting from the starting lineup.
“These guys are pros. It’s just opportunities for guys like Lance Stephenson, Gerald Green, and Sam Young to show what they can do.”
Hibbert has had a difficult season numbers-wise, but said he is working feverishly to regain his previous form.
“I haven’t been playing up to where I want to play in terms of my shot,” said Hibbert, who is shooting a career-low 40.2 percent. “I am a pretty good post defender but obviously with this contract, you have to put up big numbers. It’s unfortunate that I haven’t been able to do that.
“It hasn’t been from a lack of trying. It’s not like I got my contract and I was lazy after that. This is one of the tougher seasons and very trying for me, but I stay positive as much as possible.”
George has been the team’s best player, a former lottery pick from Fresno State who has developed into a staunch defender and graceful scorer because of his length. The swingman is second on the Pacers in scoring (16.6 points per game), is third in rebounding (7.3), and generally spends his evenings checking All-Star guards such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
“I mean, it’s obviously different [playing for the Pacers] because we don’t get recognition, nothing’s [nationally] televised,” George said. “That’s probably the only negative thing about it.
“But as far as not having marquee guys, it’s great. Our locker room is awesome. Our chemistry is awesome. We don’t have guys that are arrogant.
“It’s everybody as a whole. We’re all tied together. That’s the greatest thing about it. But again, the downfall is we don’t get the same love as big-market teams get.”
The Miami series was Indiana’s re-emergence after all but disappearing following the “Brawl at the Palace” in 2004. The Pacers led the Heat, two games to one, but dropped the final three as Dwyane Wade was brilliant.
“If we would have beaten Miami, that would have given us some leverage,” said George. “For the most part, we’ve proved ourselves. We beat teams that we thought we wouldn’t have beaten and we’ve done it on a consistent level last year.
“With Danny being out, we’re still a club that teams are having a hard time with, and it will be nice to get a little respect from it.”
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