Look at the top of the NBA’s Eastern Conference standings as this lockout-shortened regular season draws to a close.
The top two teams look familiar — the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat.
The third-place team in the East? It isn’t the Boston Celtics. It isn’t the Orlando Magic.
It’s the Indiana Pacers.
The long-suffering franchise has climbed to a 41-22 record, winning 11 of their 12 games in April — best in the NBA this month. We all knew the Pacers could have a strong 2011-12 campaign on the heels of their competitive playoff series with the Chicago Bulls last season, but how exactly did they get this good?
- Danny Granger’s improvement. The one-time All-Star didn’t have a strong start to this campaign, shooting well below 50 percent, breaking up the offensive flow by jacking up his own shots, and leading many to wonder whether he really was buying into what Frank Vogel, now the team’s full-time head coach, was selling. Granger’s play down the stretch, however, certainly would suggest he has bought in. Granger has shot 47.7 percent from the field during the Pacers’ 11-1 April run, averaging 23 points per game. He also has been money from 3-point territory this month, shooting 49.2 percent beyond the arc. Granger’s improvement goes beyond scoring, too. In the last four games, he has pulled down at least five rebounds and has displayed a willingness to defer and play within the offense; he’s averaged three assists in the same stretch. We certainly need to see this improvement stay, but Granger is starting to look more and more like the franchise player the Pacers have been hoping he would be.
- George Hill starting at point guard. Mike Wells, Pacers beat writer for the Indianapolis Star, said it before anyone. He said before the season that George Hill should be the Pacers’ starting point guard instead of Darren Collison. It unfortunately took a recent injury to Collison to happen, but Hill has given the starting five a boost. The Pacers haven’t lost this month whenever the Indianapolis native has started at point guard. Hill has recorded seven straight double-figure scoring performances and has averaged 5.4 assists in that same span, jumping Collison’s season-long average of 4.9 assists per game. The offense seems to flow much more smoothly when Hill is on the floor; this is true of both the starting five and the second unit. When you think about your primary options and the necessity to score in late-game situations, though, Hill is the right guy for the job going forward, and Vogel is making the right call in sticking with Hill even when Collison returns to full health.
- Frontcourt play. The Pacers quietly have one of the better frontcourts in the NBA. Center Roy Hibbert, who has experienced streaks and slumps aplenty during his four years in the league (one such dropoff coming right after his first All-Star selection this season), seems to have found some consistency. Hibbert has recorded double-doubles in six of the team’s 12 games in April and has come up just short of two more during the month. He has developed a solid and often lethal hook shot and has been a reliable post passer through whom to run the offense. Hibbert also has managed to cut down on his fouls — true enough, he has picked up five in each of the Pacers’ last two games, but he reached both totals late enough in play that it didn’t affect his availability. There remains a question of how well Hibbert can adapt physically when in the playoffs, but he certainly has the repertoire. Then there’s West. Signing West seriously is looking like the best veteran personnel move Larry Bird has made during his largely understated tenure as Pacers president. The production is there — 12.3 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game — but the intangibles West has brought to the table have been invaluable to this young roster. West has brought leadership and accountability and has eased much of a similar burden on Granger. West’s abilities as a passer also are often overlooked; he has averaged just above two assists per game and recorded seven Thursday in the Pacers’ 11-109 home win against Milwaukee. He’s the power forward the Pacers never really had to complement Hibbert the last few seasons — someone who can be a more consistent post presence on either end.
- Paul George as a utility man. Paul George has all the tools to be a big-time playmaker in the NBA. Right now he isn’t making the plays by scoring but rather with a grit and willingness to do the team’s dirty work. He’s averaged 1.6 steals on the year, including seven in the last two games alone. His length has enabled him to be enough of a defensive presence on the perimeter to grab those loose balls and create more scoring opportunities for his more celebrated teammates. Additionally, George has been a very willing rebounder, often outhustling opponents off the defensive glass for boards. He’s averaged 4.7 defensive rebounds per contest, and 5.5 this month. I personally am interested to see how George’s offensive game develops both in the short and long term. He’s already a reliable 3-point shooter situationally, but if he adds that consistent scoring element to his repertoire, he will have the chance to develop into one of the league’s brighter stars.
I’d say the only (small) concern for the Pacers right now is how the second unit holds up the team’s scoring. It really shouldn’t be a problem as most of the guys who come off the bench — Collison, Leandro Barbosa, Tyler Hansbrough, Dahntay Jones and A.J. Price — all have an offensive element in their games. But the bench has noticeably struggled in spurts recently, particularly last Monday when the Pacers had more than a 30-point lead on the Timberwolves and the bench’s fourth-quarter scoring drought allowed Minnesota to get within 14. Granted, that was Collison’s first action since originally being injured, so perhaps when he returns to full health, the second unit won’t have similar issues.
The Pacers return to action at 7 p.m. today when they play host to Philadelphia at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
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