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Friday, April 5, 2013
Practice run

By Kevin Pelton
ESPN The Magazine

Pacers
The clock starts now for NBA playoff practices.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 15 Photo Issue. Subscribe today!

IN THE 2012 PLAYOFFS, the Pacers were poised to derail the march of the Heat. Up 2-1 after routing Miami in Game 3, Indy had driven Dwyane Wade to distraction, the guard snapping at coach Erik Spoelstra in a huddle. The Heat ultimately got 40-point games from Wade and LeBron James to win the series. But the 2012-13 Pacers didn't fade -- they refueled. Today, with Paul George an All-Star and Roy Hibbert anchoring the NBA's top D, Indy is in the East's scrum for second and remains the primary pothole on Miami's road to the Finals. Two days after a March 10 loss to the Heat, the Pacers were back at home, and back at work ...

Pacers practice begins like most others, with an hour of film review. But today's movie is a groaner: lowlights of the 105-91 loss at Miami two nights earlier. Indiana had won the season's first two matchups, but just as in last year's playoffs, the Heat adjusted, attacking Indy from midrange, its defensive soft spot, in a likely preview of Miami's playoff strategy. It was a statement game for the Heat, their 18th straight win in a streak that would stretch weeks further, but coach Frank Vogel claimed to be unconcerned by their strategy; it was nothing that contesting a few jumpers wouldn't solve. (Besides, the last team to beat Miami before the streak? The Pacers.)

Once on the court, the Pacers break into a series of three-minute scrimmages, their usual approach. Vogel likes the minigames, he says, because they force his team to work oft-overlooked plays and late-game scenarios that can loom large in the postseason. Another upside: "There's a score involved. They play to win." Indeed, perhaps as a result of lingering bitterness from the blowout, the scrimmages turn intense -- the reserves wildly celebrating one win, with another game stretching into two OTs before ending on a disputed foul call.

Through it all, the 7'2" Roy Hibbert looms typically large, swatting shot after shot, as if by design. It is. Vogel built the Pacers D around Hibbert's shot blocking; a paper at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference used camera-tracking data to find that opponents made a lower percentage of shots around the basket with Hibbert in the paint than with any other NBA center over the past two seasons.

Still, no player looms larger for Indy this season -- and this practice -- than third-year forward Paul George, who embraced the go-to-scorer role when Danny Granger went down early this season with a knee injury. It's a leap George pegs to when he was held scoreless in a loss to the Warriors on Dec. 1. The next morning, after a red-eye flight, he took to the gym, launched 500 shots, dropped 34 the next game and never looked back. "The season changed then," he says. "I picked up my game." And if the Pacers do the same this postseason? Don't be surprised. Practice does make perfect.

Pelton worked as a consultant for the Pacers from 2010 to 2012.

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