The Miami game should’ve gotten your attention, given the Pacers’ thorough control against an elite opponent.
Then Chicago paid a visit. Though shorthanded, these are still the Bulls, and they are – or were – still in first place, at least until the Pacers handed them a double-digit loss.
Surely Atlanta would be the pothole that halted the bandwagon. The Pacers just can’t beat the Hawks. Only they did, another solid victory, extending the home streak to 15 in a row.
But last night just may have been the single most impressive performance of the season. Playing their third game in three nights – having been thoroughly drained in the first two – the Pacers reached deep into their physical and mental reserves and manhandled a well-rested Sixers team in Philadelphia, 88-69.
Ugly game? To be sure.
Beautiful outcome? Absolutely.
ALREADY GOOD, THEY’RE ONLY GETTING BETTER
Having swept three games in three nights, the only NBA team to face such a gauntlet this season, and extending their overall streak to five in a row, the Pacers are 30-19, three games behind the Heat for the top spot – as in first place – in the Eastern Conference.
And they’re only getting better.
Surely you’re aware of the collective: a defense that has been at or near the top of the NBA all season long, one that despite tired legs limited the Sixers to a season-low point total and 34.4 percent shooting, an offense that has come to life in the past couple of weeks, breaking 100 points five times.
Individually, everybody knows Paul George is having his breakthrough season, made the All-Star team and all that.
But here are a couple of things you might not realize: playing three games in three nights, George was on the court for 123½ of a possible 144 minutes, which is to say he received 10.5 minutes of rest. And he produced averages of 21.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.67 steals.
All-Star? Of course. Most improved? Most assuredly. MVP? Not yet, but he’s well on the way to being part of the annual discussion.
And of course, if you’ve been following the team out of the corner of your eye, you know David West has been a monster and George Hill has really emerged as a top-tier point guard.
HIBBERT IMPROVING, GRANGER RETURNING
But here’s something that may surprise you: Roy Hibbert doesn’t stink anymore.
His performance last night was borderline heroic, as he produced 18 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots. He carried the offense early, when everyone else was struggling, and did his usual thing on defense.
He also gave a great postgame interview to Brooke Olzendam of Fox Sports Indiana:
“I had a talk with coach, trying to figure some things out. He’s been patient with me all year and I want him to know despite how I’ve been playing on the offensive end, I work very hard, it’s not that I got paid and just stopped working. I’m about to go lift weights in the Sixers’ weight room right now, so I’m always working. Obviously, I’d like to play better. I’ve just got to string some games together.”
That string already has begun. In the current five-game win streak, Hibbert has averaged 12.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 44 percent shooting. He isn’t all the way back yet but is well on the way.
And then there is the pending return of Danny Granger. Coach Frank Vogel has been saying for some time now he’d like to have Granger play in a couple of games before the All-Star break to get his feet wet. Well, there are just three games left before the break, so get ready for the “Granger set to return” headline.
He obviously won’t be his old self right away, but he should help. Whether he starts or comes off the bench, he adds a mighty weapon to the rotation, with a trickle-down effect that should help strengthen the team’s primary weakness – an erratic second unit.
TIME TO GET ON BOARD
With Hibbert on the way and Granger just around the corner, this is a team that very well could make a run at the top spot in the conference and has re-established a place among the East’s elite.
But there’s one critical stat that needs to improve.
They’re 26th in the NBA in attendance. They have just four sellouts. This is a team with 15 consecutive home wins and a 19-3 record at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
They’ve done their part, folks.
Time to emerge from your winter football coma and get on board.