East-leading Indy stays home for Christmas

December, 23, 2013
12/23/13
11:44
PM ET
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
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NEW YORK -- When the NBA schedule came out last summer, the Indiana Pacers players first looked for their opener, then they looked at Christmas Day.

Surely they would've graduated to Christmas Day status -- a trademark sign of national respect in the league -- after going to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat last season.

But Dec. 25 was blank.

"No comment," Pacers center Roy Hibbert said. "I’m going to leave that one alone."

"We expect stuff like that," David West said. "It was the same reason that at the start of the season I saw us getting picked like fourth in the East."

"I wasn’t expecting to play that day, to be honest," Paul George said. "It’s just the way it’s been for us being here."

Ten teams were picked to play on Wednesday, generally the 10 teams the league expected to generate the most excitement on one of the season’s marquee days. The small-market Pacers didn't make the cut.

They will play in the featured game on Thursday night only once this season, in mid-January. They are not currently scheduled to play in a Sunday afternoon national-television game. Of the four games they play against the Heat this season, two were not initially scheduled to be on one of the league’s national broadcast partners.

Monday night they took apart the injury-ravaged Brooklyn Nets 103-86. The Nets are the inverse of the Pacers. After their offseason of flashy moves, they received a huge amount of attention and were given a full slot on the national platform, kicking off Christmas Day against the equally disappointing Chicago Bulls.

The Pacers’ payroll this season is a little less than $70 million. The Nets are paying $80 million … in luxury tax. After blowing a late lead in Miami last week put them on their first losing streak of the season, the Pacers have now come back to win three in a row to improve to 23-5.

"We let our play do the talking," West said. "We understand who we are. We’re still growing our names. Even Paul, he’s getting some attention, but people are just starting to get to know him."

The Pacers, who are about five years into a plan that has seen them build primarily through the draft, may get a taste of revenge when the All-Star Game arrives, though. They might as well book a block of rooms in New Orleans for President's Day weekend now.

With the win over the Nets, coach Frank Vogel suddenly has a magic number of 10 to clinch being the All-Star coach for the East. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is ineligible because he was the coach last season and the Pacers have an eight-game lead on the third-seeded Atlanta Hawks. Vogel could clinch the honor by the middle of January if the team keeps on this pace.

George appears headed to be voted in as a starter; he would be the first Pacer to get that honor since Jermaine O'Neal in 2003. Hibbert probably won’t get voted in -- the ballot no longer has a center designation -- but is nearly a lock to get there.

"LeBron can start at center," Hibbert said. "He can play all five positions."

West, a two-time All-Star, will get strong consideration, and even Lance Stephenson -- a player who would've drawn laughs when mentioned in All-Star talk a few months ago -- is gaining traction. Or at least the Pacers are trying to give it to him.

Indiana might not lead the league in attention, but it is among the leaders in confidence. Hibbert has been on his own campaign to win NBA defensive player of the year. Teammates have mentioned George as an MVP candidate. And now the vogue idea is to pitch Stephenson as an All-Star.

"He should be in the conversation," Vogel said. "He’s got to be in the conversation."

Stephenson had his third triple-double of the season Sunday against the Boston Celtics, then Monday he put on a show in his hometown in front of about 30 friends and family. He had a career-high 26 points with 7 rebounds and 5 assists.

With each basket, his buddies sitting above the Pacers bench would jump up and pump their fists. As the game got out of hand and Nets fans started leaving, the Stephenson section became more and more audible.

"I was pretty emotionally hyped for this game," Stephenson said. "I couldn't really sleep last night."

In the end, perhaps the Pacers ended up with the best deal in it all. The schedule has them off until Saturday, a break that allowed the team to give the players two days off over the holiday. Stephenson stayed in Brooklyn with family. The rest of the Pacers, at least according to Hibbert’s Twitter feed, spent their bus ride toward their Christmas vacation arguing over who has the better career: Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus.

Meanwhile, the Heat complained in a recent meeting with incoming commissioner Adam Silver that they had to travel to L.A. for Christmas when they’re the defending champs. Flying under the radar can, it seems, have its perks.

"Everything has played perfect for us. We didn’t get distracted with too much attention," said George, who had 26 points of his own in the win. "I feel like that’ll change in the future."

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