Picking Up the Pace
Indiana’s big men are quietly making the Pacers a player in the East.
by Quinn Peterson / @QwinFNP
You wouldn’t have been able to tell last night, as the Bulls drubbed the Pacers 92-72, but Indiana is actually one of the League’s most improved teams this season. At 23-13, they’re currently sitting at No. 5 in the Eastern Conference, further exceeding already increased expectations.
Winners of six straight entering last night’s game at the United Center, the Madhouse on Madison has been a central location in the Pacers’ progression. Last year in the Playoffs, as an eight-seed, Indy challenged the top-seeded Bulls, giving them all they could handle before bowing out in five games.
That series set the tone coming into the lockout-shortened season. It marked a turning point for an organization that had failed to hit 40 wins in each of the previous five seasons.
“We wanted to ride the momentum that we had from last year,” said Pacers center Roy Hibbert. “We’re a different team than we were the year before, we learned a lot from last year’s playoff series.”
Second-year guard Paul George agreed, adding that personnel upgrades have been crucial, as well.
“I think we went out and got the guys that can take us to the next level this summer, getting David West and George Hill,” he said. “With that commitment from the organization—everybody had that feeling that we could have been great last season—with the addition of those two guys, we’ve been playing up to our ability this year.”
“Larry [Bird] has done a great job over the last few years bringing in high-character guys,” added head coach Frank Vogel, who took over Pacers midway through last season. “The additions of George Hill, David West and Lou Amundson have just added to that. They’ve brought a great deal of chemistry and experience, and it’s helped us take the next step.”
“My nature is to be calm and be steady,” said Pacers forward David West, in his first year with Indiana. “I don’t panic in situations. I’ve been trying to just bring what I’ve experienced in my nine years in the league, and tried to make an impact. I’m not a big wolfer, I’m just a guy that tries to go out and get my message across by doing things. I feel like I’ve helped the communication. I think that’s key. I’ve learned that you can’t have a lot of silence in terms of being able to correct things from game to game. You’ve gotta be able to talk to one another. If you’ve gotta be critical of someone, you do it in a respectful manner so that he knows that ultimately, you’re trying to improve what we’re doing here as a team.”
It’s also helped that the Pacers’ pieces from last year—especially George and Hibbert—have shown steady improvement. Hibbert was named a first-time All-Star a few weeks ago, while for George, the growth has been both literal and figurative.
“I grew an inch and some change. I didn’t grow a legit two inches,” clarifying rumors that he’d jumped to 6-11 since the end of last season. “As far as my game, it’s really just been the repetition, having a chance to be out there, make mistakes and grow from it, and then learn what works and what doesn’t work. I worked a lot this summer on my shooting so that’s the reason why I’ve been so consistent.”
Clearly, there’s a different culture abuzz in Indy, and on the court, it starts with the defense. The Pacers are a top-10 team in opponent points per game and defensive field goal percentage, holding team to slightly under 92 points per game, shooting 42 percent from the field.
“I think that, maybe we’re handling some things different in terms of our maturity level,” said West, comparing his first season with the Pacers to years past when he was a member of the Hornets. “We still have a ways to go in terms of being confident when you win and acting the right way when you win, being able to handle losses like this, and bounce back from them.”
“[The culture's] changed a lot,” said George. “Last year, our locker room had a negative vibe to it. Not necessarily for the whole season, but at times, there was a negative vibe. This year, it’s a positive vibe. Everybody is pulling for one another, we have a team where everybody’s contributing.
“I think our defense is the reason why we’ve been so successful. We have guys that are willing to lock in and help each other, fill in gaps and rotate. Everybody’s been able to contain their own man, and when somebody needs help, we’re there to help them out.”
Given the 20-point loss last night, the Pacers still have a ways to go, no doubt. But they will be a tough out for whomever they draw in the playoffs, and if the progression continues at the rate it has, they’ll be looking far further than the first round.