Originally Published: January 20, 2014

1. Indiana Keeps Getting The Best Of West

By Ethan Sherwood Strauss | TrueHoop Network

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Eastern Conference is a joke few NBA fans grow tired of telling, but it should be known that one team out of the East condescends to the West. It isn't the coasting Miami Heat, whose laurels have little to do with this NBA season. It's the exuberant Indiana Pacers, who with a 102-94 victory over the Golden State Warriors now claim the NBA's best record against Western teams (11-2).

True, they "haven't won anything," if a championship is literally all that matters. Perhaps they shouldn't be considered better than teams that have won it all before. But if you're not into holding teams to impossible standards, what more does this squad have to do in the regular season to gain title-favorite status? They've got the best record, point differential, and defense.

Paul George
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsPaul George and the Pacers began their five-game West Coast swing on the right foot.

The Pacers can also play a little offense, as they showed when they blasted the Warriors for 35 first-quarter points. Paul George scored 14 of his 23 points in that quarter, doing so on silky jumpers and slithery drives. It was a vast improvement over his previous game in Oakland, in December 2012, when he ignominiously failed to score a single point.

"I just was thinking of how can I make myself better, how can I eliminate nights like that night," George said as he recalled a game so bad that he changed his "whole approach" because of it. Back then, Indiana's superstar used to get on "the late bus" and just wait for game time.

"Now, I come on the early bus, I get my treatment done, I go in the weight room, get a good lift in, and then I go on the court and get a lot of shots in. And then after shots, I go and get my massage," he said.

Quite a few Pacers players speak about growth and about how they've taken on greater responsibilities in a short amount of time. Lance Stephenson had a rough shooting night until he hit a contested fourth-quarter 26-footer that effectively pushed the game past the reach of a tired Warriors team.

"Man, I was off the whole game. I ain't hit no jump shots until that point," Stephenson said. "I work on my jump shot all the time. I knew I was missing, so I just hit a big, clutch 3."

Stephenson was quick to note that it wasn't just 3-pointers that sealed this victory. After declaring offensive rebounds to be the factor that swung this tilt, he said: "Sometimes when I'm missing, I just try and do other things, like get offensive rebounds or push the rock, get easy points. Last year I would have just gave up, I would have lost confidence. But now my teammates got my back and they keep me aggressive, helped me out tonight."

Golden State tried to match Indiana's aggression but never could close the gap. The Pacers were just too physical in the paint, most especially when knee pain forced Andrew Bogut from the floor.

Going small is a tall order against perhaps the NBA's most physically imposing opponent. "You can't go small against us!" Ian Mahinmi crowed to fellow Pacers center Roy Hibbert. The massive starting center responded, "David Lee nearly had me on skates."

Nearly, but not quite. Warriors lineups that featured Lee at center hit one out of 13 shots, allowing the Pacers to keep the home team at bay.

In describing how he felt about Golden State's small approach, Hibbert said, "We've seen that before and after last year in the playoffs. [Frank Vogel's] going to leave me in to guard the smaller, quicker big men. He's going to trust that I'm going to do my job."

Hibbert literally looks down on the competition while often bristling at how too few look up to him. In his off time, he wears high-tech glasses that allow fans to see the world from his perch of a perspective.

Perhaps the days of Hibbert talking about how his team and his play are overlooked have come to an end, though. When asked if people now respect his team properly, Hibbert acknowledged, "Ya, they do," before adding, "We don't expect to surprise anybody."

The vaunted Western Conference has been warned, and loudly so.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss writes for TrueHoop. Follow him @SherwoodStrauss

Dimes past: Jan. 1 | 2 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 19

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