Indiana Pacers, Right Behind the Bulls in the Central Division

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dancer

Yes, the standings are correct.

Despite a 97-95 loss Wednesday to the division rival Milwaukee Bucks at the Bradley Center, the Indiana Pacers find themselves in second place in the Central division with a 10-10 record just past the one-month mark of the 2010-11 NBA season.

Granted, the Pacers have been only slightly outside the neighborhood of a .500 team during coach Jim O’Brien’s tenure, but you get the feeling there’s something different about this squad.

By Drew Allen

Larry Bird

Plagued by poor defense in each of O’Brien’s first three seasons at the helm, Indiana currently stands 12th in the NBA with 97.7 points allowed per game — still not great, but undoubtedly an improvement upon last year’s 103.8 per-game average, which tabbed the team at 23rd in the league. The addition of point guard Darren Collison has certainly bolstered the Pacers’ defense, as has the drastic improvement of center Roy Hibbert, who averages 8.5 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. Guard Brandon Rush is capable of a lockdown defensive performance — when his head is on straight, that is.

You also get the sense that the Pacers aren’t afraid to strut against some of the NBA’s biggest stars.

Of the team’s 10 wins, three have come against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Miami Heat and the Denver Nuggets, each of whom can argue that it has at least one top-5 player in the league.

Even take Wednesday’s game against the Bucks as an example.

Indiana held Milwaukee to 36 percent from the field and 23.1 percent from 3-point range, falling only at the end when Bucks center Andrew Bogut tipped in a sensational in-bounds lob from teammate Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to seal the win on the game’s final play. Speaking of Bogut, the up-and-coming big man missed the Nov. 5th meeting with the Pacers in Indianapolis because of migraines. Indiana allowed the Bucks to make 40 percent of their 3-pointers that night.

Even so, the Pacers don’t come without their deficiencies. While improved, overall defense is still somewhat a night-by-night crapshoot for the team. Power forward is still a long-term concern despite spirited efforts from Josh McRoberts and Tyler Hansbrough (still sounds weird to read those names on the same roster, doesn’t it?). So on.

With the good and the bad in mind, here’s what I think needs to happen for the Pacers the rest of the way this season if they are to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006:

  • Get some consistent play from Brandon Rush. The third-year guard has struggled to find any consistency during his pro career, and unfortunately for Indiana, that appears to be the case again in 2010-11. Not that the Pacers need me to tell them that; in games the team has won, Rush has shot 52.9 percent from the field, but the former Kansas star has managed just a 41 percent average in games Indiana has lost. Doubts as to whether Rush is all the way there mentally were validated in the summer when he tested positive for marijuana in a third failed NBA drug test, which forced him to miss the first five games of the season in a suspension. The Pacers can only hope Rush’s missed time and a pickup of his option light a fire underneath him.
  • Keep playing T.J. Ford in his current role. I can’t believe I said that, but it’s the truth. Ford has excelled as the Pacers’ backup point guard, averaging the same number of assists per game — four — as Collison. As a starter, Ford was never the facilitator that O’Brien envisioned when Indiana traded for him, taking too many errant shots and losing his job in his first and second seasons in Indy to Jarrett Jack and Earl Watson, respectively. Now that the Pacers have a legitimate starter at the point, Ford can relish in his current role, and that will help the team tremendously, either in a playoff push or a deal at the trade deadline.
  • Take it to the rim, Danny. Forward Danny Granger has firmly established himself as the Pacers’ leader in the past two seasons and is still the team’s only All-Star (though Hibbert might change that soon). Granger certainly is one of the NBA’s best scorers with 21.6 points per game, but his first instinct is to shoot, particularly from 3-point territory. The thing is, whenever he attacks the rim, he’s generally successful, so that needs to happen more often. Granger can also further assert his leadership as well as his emergence as a potential superstar in the league.

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