Who has the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference in 2014?
You may be surprised to learn it is none other than the Pacers, who are 5-2 in January. This is not to suggest there’s anything wrong in Indiana, but rather that things are starting to go right elsewhere – including with tonight’s opponent, the Knicks.
The Bulls (7-1), Knicks (6-2) and Nets (5-1) all have better records in this calendar year than the Pacers, so it’s just possible what has been a miserably non-competitive conference may actually heat up a bit.
Of the three, the Bulls (18-19) are the least likely to sustain any kind of hot streak because they’ve just been fattening up on a soft schedule.
The Knicks and Nets, on the other hand, seem to be getting it together.
“I think everybody was surprised at the slow starts they got off to,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. “Obviously, injuries came into play but they’re getting a little healthier and they’re stabilizing into what people thought they would be.”
The Knicks (15-23) have road wins over the Spurs and Mavericks and a home conquest of Miami in their recent surge, and have showed signs of significant improvement both offensively and defensively.
When the Pacers won 103-96 (in overtime) in New York on Nov. 20, the Knicks did not have Raymond Felton, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. All three have since returned. Felton’s steady hand has stabilized things offensively and Stoudemire has given the team a big lift off the bench, averaging 13.6 points and 5.8 rebounds in the past 11 games.
Of course, there is drama – there always is drama on Broadway – with the benching of mercurial J.R. Smith drawing more headlines than the team’s surge.
But the Knicks are beginning to look a lot more like a threat.
“If I am Indiana, if I am the Heat, if I’m other teams, I can beat them (in a playoff series), but I don’t know if I really want to play them because they believe they can win,” said NBA TV analyst Chris Webber. “They have good home court advantage, and you never know what could happen.”
The Nets have picked things up in the absence of start point guard Deron Williams, battling a sprained left ankle for the third time this season, winning in Oklahoma City, snapping Golden State’s 10-game win streak and also beating the Heat.
Though Williams has been in and out of the lineup, Andrei Kirilenko finally has returned, bringing a much-needed defensive stopper as well as full-court energy to the group.
Throw in Toronto’s turnaround since trading Rudy Gay – the Raptors have eon 12 of 17 and lead both the Nets and Knicks in the Atlantic Division – and it’s reasonable to entertain the notion that some semblance of competitive balance has returned to the East.
SIR LANCE A LOT WANTS YOUR VOTE
Lance Stephenson may not make the All-Star team but it won’t be for lack of trying; this relatively slick video production showed his lighter side while stumping for votes.
Already a front-runner for Most Improved, Stephenson has emerged as a legitimate candidate for the East reserves, albeit still something of a long shot. His numbers (13.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists) are a tad modest and there is plenty of quality competition for the remaining couple of spots behind locked-in All-Stars Dwayne Wade and Kyrie Irving.Young players typically don’t make the All-Star step until the season after they break through, so that would mean a more viable candidacy next season.
And then there’s this: conference coaches, whose votes determine the reserves, may not hold Stephenson’s on-court flair in the same high esteem as Vogel and the Pacers.Of course, making the All-Star team would also had to Stephenson’s price tag when he becomes a free agent in July. Based on various reports, he already is in line for an average salary in the $7-10 million range, so enjoy him while you can.
Unless Stephenson offers up a prolific hometown discount, or owner Herb Simon makes an exception to his no-luxury-tax mandate, his first All-Star appearance could well be in another uniform.
PACERS DOCUMENTARY DEBUTS FRIDAY
A documentary about the Pacers’ question for a championship will debut Friday at 5:30 on NBA TV. It’s entititled “On A Mission: Indiana Pacers” and is an NBA TV Originals production.
Narrated by none other than Reggie Miller, the 30-minute special focuses on Larry Bird’s role in building the contender as well as his drive to see it through.
“I really haven’t won anything for Indiana,” Bird said. “I couldn’t win in high school. I couldn’t win in college. I’d like to see this franchise make the step necessary to get back and do whatever they can to win a championship and my life would then be fulfilled. If they can win it, my life would be fulfilled, because I did something for Indiana.”
You may notice a familiar face in the trailer.