By sweeping the Rockets, Mavericks, Suns and Clippers on their final extended roadie of the season, the Pacers officially, finally, conquered the one remaining demon that had haunted them this season – the road.
They’ve now won nine of their last 12 road games. But here’s the most impressive number: they’re 38-16 since that 10-11 start.
With their next victory, or a Chicago loss to the Nets tonight, the Pacers will clinch the fifth Central Division title in franchise history. With two more, they’ll reach 50 wins for the sixth time. Both of those goals would be attained for the first time since 2003-04.
With a five-game winning streak, and eight wins in nine games, the Pacers are the second-hottest team in the league. Problem is, the hottest is the team they’re chasing for the No. 2 seed, the Knicks, who’ve won 10 in a row.
All of which is setting up very nicely for next Sunday’s showdown in Madison Square Garden but, as we’ve seen, a lot can happen in a week to change things.
>> Roy Hibbert becoming a dominant offensive force.
The season that defies explanation continues, but this time in a good way. Hibbert has averaged 21.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and .560 shooting in the win streak but beyond that, everything about him exudes confidence and energy. It seems like a quick surge but really is not; he has averaged 16.2 points on .498 shooting in the past 20 games.
>> Paul George going on the attack.
George has averaged 20.2 points in the streak despite cold shooting from the 3-point line (9-for-32). But he has been much more aggressive off the dribble, getting to the rim and drawing contact. He has attempted 30 free throws in the last five games, a 6.0 average – nearly double his season norm of 3.4. In the process, he has learned the valuable lesson that free throws can make a scorer virtually slump-proof.
>> The offense regaining its inside-out identity.
With Hibbert doing his thing and David West getting his rhythm back after a brief absence due to a lower back sprain, the Pacers have gone back to pounding away at teams in the post. On the road trip, they outscored teams by 23 at the free throw line and outshot them by 31. That’s tough to do anywhere, acutely so on the road. As a result, the Pacers have averaged 104.8 points in the last five, topping 100 in each.
>> The defense continuing to stand fast as the best in the league.
There was some slippage in the second half against both the Suns and Clippers but overall the Pacers continue to be the stingiest team in the league. Their overall defensive numbers may slip just a big as their offensive pace increases but that doesn’t necessarily indicate a decline in efficiency.
The resolution of the Danny Granger situation allowed this team to settle back into place without the lingering questions about what rotational dominoes would fall in the event of his return no doubt has been part of it.
But not all.
“I just think our whole team senses the time of year,” Frank Vogel said. “We’re entering a critical stretch, we’re getting ourselves playoff-ready.”
With the Thunder coming into town Friday and a potentially critical three-game stretch next week against the Nets, Knicks and Celtics, they couldn’t have found themselves at a better time.