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Pacers a Dangerous Team in the East

Don’t look now, but here come the Pacers. They’ve been overlooked for most of the season, starting out 1-6 and sitting at 17-32 at the start of February. The loss of Paul George to that disgusting leg injury during a USA Basketball scrimmage over the summer, not to mention Lance Stephenson leaving town, was supposed to wreck their season. But in the shadow of bigger stories, such as the Thunder, the Pacers are becoming part of the conversation in the Eastern Conference.

Since the start of February, the Pacers have gone 9-2, including quality wins over the Pelicans, Warriors and Cavaliers (twice). Indiana currently sits in ninth place in the East, but only a half-game back of the Hornets for the eighth spot. The Pacers could realistically move up as high at seventh, as they’re only a game behind the Heat.

Indiana started the season without George, obviously, but they’ve also had plenty of other injuries as well. George Hill has missed 39 games, C.J. Watson has missed 19, David West has missed 15 and Roy Hibbert has missed five. They’ve had 10 players on their roster start at least 12 games. To say they’ve been ravaged by injuries would be kind.

But they’re almost at full strength now. Everyone is back and ready to play except George, who has returned to the practice floor and could be ready soon. Of course, no one can guarantee how well George might play when he gets back. Recovery from a season-long injury doesn’t mean he’ll be playing like a star again. Just ask Derrick Rose.

But can you imagine if he is? Or if he’s even close? Adding George takes them from interesting to dangerous. Hill has been leading them over their recent hot stretch, averaging 14.5 points and 6.0 assists while shooting 44 percent over his last 11 games. Rodney Stuckey has quietly had a career season in terms of shooting percentages, and his scoring has ticked up lately as well. He’s averaging 18 points over his last nine games. Their depth, especially in the frontcourt with Hibbert, West and Luis Scola, is impressive.

We all know the kind of defense the Pacers have been known for under coach Frank Vogel, and this season has been no different. They’re only allowing 96.5 points to their opponents, which is good for fourth in the NBA, and just 94.3 since the beginning of February. Just for comparison, the normally stout Chicago Bulls are allowing 98.4 points under Tom Thibodeau.

For the sake of argument, let’s just say the Pacers finish in seventh place. Do you think the Cavs or Bulls or Raptors would be all that excited to draw them in the first round of the playoffs? I could envision a Pacers team at full strength beating any one of those teams in a playoff series. The only team that I think is debatable is the Cavs, but it’s important to remember that Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have never played a single playoff game.

The talk of the NBA right now is the Thunder and Russell Westbrook, and with good reason. Westbrook just had an historic month of February, and they’re currently making the Warriors sweat by sitting in the eighth spot in the West. But with games against the Hornets and Heat on the schedule in April, and George making his way back to the court, the next big storyline may be the Pacers.

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