Last season the Indiana Pacers limped into the playoffs with the worst record of the 16 playoff teams. Finishing eight games under .500, they were the only team in the playoffs to finish the season with a losing record.
During this past offseason the Pacers had cap space and a plan to use it. They signed power forward David West for two years and added sixth man combo guard George Hill through a trade with the San Antonio Spurs. However, the biggest change for the Pacers is their new focus on the defensive side of the ball.
“The best defensive teams in the league tend to go deep into the playoff, that’s our goal and that’s what we focus on,” Danny Granger told HOOPSWORLD. “It’s our defensive game that’s helping with our record. Defensively we’ve had the ability to shut other teams down and I think that’s the main reason why we are (12) and 5.”
The Pacers are fifth in the NBA holding opposing teams to only 90.5 points per game, down from just under 101 points last season. The Pacers are also holding opponents to a league best 41.2% from the field, all while still working Hill and West into their system.
“I’m trying to get use to some things. I’m still trying to figure out how I can be affective in this system as well as working on holes in my game that will make me better,” Hill told HOOPSWORLD. “The only thing I can control is what coach wants me to do when I’m out there. I just go out and play my hardest.
“We’re still learning how to play together and we’re still not where we want to be, but it’s not a sprint. We know it’s going to take time and we know that we have to continue to get better. If we continue to learn how to play together and defend the right way I think we can make an impact in the Eastern Conference.”
It’s a scary thought for the rest of the Eastern Conference that the Pacers still have room to grow. They already have wins over some of the top teams in the NBA, including the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics.
The offseason moves and early season wins have put the Pacers in the newfound position of being expected to win. Those expectations can often doom a team, but the Pacers seem to welcome the added pressure.
“We’re dealing with it really well. We’re not catching people by surprise anymore,” Granger explained. “We’ve won on the road, in L.A. and in Boston. We’ve beaten a lot of the top teams. We don’t surprise teams anymore but we’re still continuing to win games.”
With the added media attention this year, Hill and center Roy Hibbert have been asked repeatedly about their current contract status. With the deadline to extend players off of their rookie contracts having passed and neither Hill nor Hibbert receiving an extension, this was one more issue that could have derailed the Pacers season. Instead, they’ve taken the talk in stride and for Hill – an Indiana native – there is no place he’d rather play.
“It’s always been my dream to play for the Indiana Pacers. If it’s the right situation then I’ll continue to be a part of this team,” Hill explained. “I want to be here and I’ll always be an Indiana guy.”
The Pacers have been somewhat lucky as well during the first part of the season. While teams like the Chicago Bulls, Boston Celtics and Miami HEAT have all dealt with some serious injuries to key players, the Pacers have remained almost completely healthy.
Through the first 17 games of the season, the Pacers top eight rotational players have missed a combined two games. Meanwhile Derrick Rose and Luol Deng have missed seven combined games for the Bulls through January 26th and Dwyane Wade has missed nine for the HEAT.
The Pacers credit not only their training staff but also the coaching staff for monitoring their minutes.
“You have to give credit to our training staff,” Hill said. “They do a great job of noticing injuries before they become a big headache. I think they’re also doing a great job making sure that everybody’s bodies are healthy and they do a great job handling the minor things early on.”
“Our coach has made sure to manage our bodies correctly,” Granger explained.
“You obviously can’t prevent things that just kind of happen, but you can prevent injuries by giving guys as much rest as possible so our bodies aren’t breaking down. So far we’ve been lucky not to have injuries like a lot of other teams are dealing with.”
The compressed schedule of this lockout-shortened season doesn’t seem to be affecting the Pacers in a negative way and with young, healthy legs they believe they can contend with anyone in the NBA.
“I definitely think we’re a contender. We’re 7 or 8 guys deep and we have more talent then a lot of teams,” Granger said. “Some teams are top heavy with one or two guys and we have eight guys who can contribute for us. I think we can go as far as we allow ourselves to go.”
While the Bulls and HEAT remain the favorites in the East, if the Pacers continue to grow together as a team they could find themselves crashing the party during the Eastern Conference Finals.