20130429-135523.jpgOf the many things the Pacers already have accomplished this season, perhaps none is more impressive than this: they’ve managed to exceed the expectations of their pathologically optimistic head coach.

“You don’t really put a number on where you’re going to be,” Frank Vogel said, “but we were hoping to be competing with Miami and we’re ahead of Miami right now. I think we’re slightly ahead of even my high expectations and hopefully we stay the course.”

Since their last experience in Game 7 of the conference finals was a bitter loss in Miami, the Pacers have been focused on making sure their next Game 7 in the conference finals, should it arise, would take place in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. To accomplish that, they must finish atop the conference standings, which, at 33-8, is precisely where they reside.

As the Pacers reach the midpoint of the season, they are halfway home.

It’s obvious what has gone right to get them to this point: a historic 16-0 start, the rise of Paul George to an entirely new level of stardom, the emergence of Lance Stephenson has a consistently aggressive force, a league-best defense and a deeper bench.

To fulfill the ultimate goal of this regular season and wind up on top of the East, however, there are a few issues to keep an eye on the rest of the way.

>> PROVE THAT DEFENSE TRAVELS

There’s no question as to the Pacers’ defensive prowess at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. On the road, however, it has been a much different story. The 124-100 loss in Phoenix Wednesday night was the most extreme example, but also the latest. The Suns produced season highs in points and 3-point percentage (.688) against the Pacers, who were utterly lethargic on defense, particularly against Gerald Green and Goran Dragic, who went where they wanted, when they wanted with precious little resistance.

It was the fifth loss in eight road games for the Pacers, and the primary problem is obvious.

At home, the Pacers allow 83.7 points, .390 shooting overall and .293 from the 3-point line.

On the road, they allow 95.0 points, .438 shooting overall and .367 from the arc.

They’ve allowed at least 100 points seven times this year; six of those have come on the road.

We get that they really want homecourt advantage in the playoffs, and fully understand how important it can be. But if they’re going to get it, they need to tighten up on the road.

>> MAKE BETTER USE OF BENCH

While the second unit has clearly been an upgrade over last season, the bar wasn’t very high. The Pacers were 29th in bench scoring last season (24.1).

Since Danny Granger’s return, the Pacers have averaged 29.6 bench points, which is trending in the right direction but still leaves room for growth. Overall, they’re at 26.1 for the season, which ranks 25th.

There simply is too much talent on this second unit for those numbers to be acceptable. Granger hasn’t missed a game since being activated, so it seems his knee has passed that major test. Now he must continue to rebuild his game and his confidence in his legs. If Granger can work himself into a 15-point, 24-minute weapon off the bench, he can be a game-changer in the postseason.

They must also find better ways to use Luis Scola. His offensive contributions have been primarily as a face-up shooter, most frequently from the key. But the strength of Scola’s offensive game is in the low post, where he is the man of a thousand little moves.

Scola has shared the court with David West for a meager total of 52 minutes this season, and the Pacers are plus 23.3 even in that brief sample size. The offensive benefit of using those two veterans together far outweighs the potential defensive compromise from the loss of Ian Mahinmi’s rim protection.

>> DON’T SCRAP THE INSIDE-OUT OFFENSE

If there is to be a Game 7 with Miami this year, the Pacers want it in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. (Photo: Icon SMI)

If there is to be a Game 7 with Miami this year, the Pacers want it in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. (Photo: Icon SMI)

Vogel has done a nice job transitioning from a post-centric offensive approach to one that runs through the wings, with George and Stephenson becoming the focal points. While this has resulted in much greater production from those two, it has brought diminishing return from West and Roy Hibbert – and, to a lesser degree, Scola.

This is not to diminish the value of what George and Stephenson have done but the Pacers have risen to elite contender status largely on the shoulders of Hibbert and West. When opposing coaches talk of the challenge of facing the Pacers, they invariably begin with the need to match up with the physicality of Hibbert and West – not defending George and Stephenson.

Simply put, that’s because most teams have productive wing scorers, while very few have a power tandem (or trio) like the Pacers. Leaning more on George and Stephenson has helped make the Pacers a regular-season success but when the playoffs roll around – specifically, the anticipated rematch with the Heat – Indiana would be well-advised to play to its greatest strengths, to exploit its main advantages, rather than trying to play Miami’s game.

Otherwise, homecourt advantage might not matter.

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