The Indiana Pacers are cooking right now. After an offseason full of extreme changes and the resulting 0-3 start, the team has started to figure out all of its new ingredients during this November, winning 9 of its last 11 games and rocking the league’s second-highest point differential for the month.
Their two losses have both come on the road by a combined five points at the hands of Cleveland and Chicago, the mostly agreed-upon top pair of teams in the East. With the Miami Heat’s loss on Wednesday, those two squads are the only teams currently ahead of Indiana in the Eastern Conference standings, where Indiana sits in third at 9-5 (the Heat are also 9-5). The Pacers already handled the Heat when they visited Indianapolis earlier this month, and with an 8-3 record against the conference so far, they appear to have real potential to be one of the more formidable teams in that half of the league.
Indiana asserted as much Tuesday night, when they visited Washington and picked up perhaps their most impressive conference win to date. Just as they did to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier in the week, the Pacers lit up the Wizards for 123 points and began to make the most of their new spread-style offense in a record-setting way. Per Elias, the team set a record by becoming the only team ever to shoot at least 73 percent on 25 or more three-point attempts in a game. Indiana finished the affair 18 for 25 from deep, led by the 8-9 and 7-8 marks from C.J. Miles and Paul George, respectively.
Since their loss to the Bulls a little more than a week ago –– one that came without George Hill, Rodney Stuckey and Myles Turner in uniform –– no one has been able to stop the Pacers, particularly George, who’s been a revelation with his strong return from a brutal injury. The small forward has returned even better than he was two years ago and is putting together an absolutely MVP-like campaign, averaging nearly 26 points per game while maintaining his elite defense and improving in other areas, including his playmaking for teammates. Both George and his team have been playing as if they have something to prove, and with their next half-dozen games, they’ll have a great opportunity to do just that.
Following their demolition of Washington, Indiana returns home to host Chicago on Friday in what could become a crucial contest with tiebreaking potential, should both of those teams stay hanging in the top half of the East. After that, the Pacers head out for their first West Coast trip, which will offer an excellent test for a team that’s just 1-2 against the Western Conference so far. And while the records of the Lakers, Clippers, Blazers and Jazz aren’t super impressive, each of those teams is built very different and will offer a different type of challenge each night for Indiana. The biggest challenge, however, will come when they arrive home for a Dec. 8 date with the Golden State Warriors.
The Pacers couldn’t have wished for a better start to this difficult stretch than their track meet against the Wizards, which also gave them the kind of early-season “signature win” that they’d been lacking to that point. Outside of Washington, Indiana’s best wins so far had come against the Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves and Boston Celtics (twice), but in the cases of the former pair, the wins came at home at the end of a long playing week for opponents, and in the case of the latter, Boston might not actually be as good as many expected. Although George and his squad probably don’t need any such boost with the way they’ve been playing, a win like that, on the road against a talented opponent, shows the rest of the league what this team can be capable of.
The switch to a smaller lineup hasn’t gone smoothly for Indiana so far. The team has been trying to make the transition with less-than-ideal personnel to begin with, and that dicey situation has been exacerbated by early injuries to key pieces like Miles, Hill and Stuckey. Still, Frank Vogel has figured out how to make it work, juggling the team’s “small” and “big” identities effectively while simultaneously facilitating the team’s strategic overhaul. In the last few games, however, the small lineups have been coming around after tepid beginnings, posting strong plus-minus results in spread lineups with both Ellis and Hill manning the point, as the latter has been missing time with an illness.
That’ll be the key element of this team to watch as they head into this difficult Western stretch: how effective the spread lineups can be. Indiana has found success with its larger lineups to this point, but lineups that prominently feature Jordan Hill or Lavoy Allen have limited potential compared to the possibilities of the team’s smaller, faster quintets. Those lineups offer a ridiculous amount of spacing, speed and scoring potential, as well as the opportunity to arguably get its five best players on the floor at the same time. In theory, the spread version of this Pacers team should be the best version.
The crucial areas of focus for this group will be quick defense and gang rebounding, as playing the undersized Miles at power forward requires that type of team-oriented effort. If Indiana can pull that off in those lineups –– and they’re already in the top five in the NBA in steals –– this group could grow into a lethal squad.
It’s still early, but the Pacers have their first chance to really prove that they can become that caliber of team. Regardless of how this immediate trip goes, the potential of this team going forward looks eons better now than it did one year ago.