INDIANAPOLIS -- A meaningless game against the Washington Wizards (spelled Wisards on the blackboard in the Locker Room bar outside of the Pacers' locker room) feels like the opening of the second round of the playoffs.
The traffic coming to the game is as thick as a championship parade. The arena is full. In Section 209 on the fifth floor, fans are already predicting (and betting on) a Spurs-Pacers Finals. Floyd Mayweather Jr. is in the building.
Things are so good for the Pacers that the crowd in the Bankers Life Fieldhouse started chanting "We Want Lance!" begging coach Frank Vogel to put Lance Stephenson back into the game because the player deemed an "enigma" less than a year ago was only three points (or two turnovers) from getting his third triple-double of the season.
I looked around and said to Indiana basketball legend and Pacers broadcast analyst Quinn Buckner, "This is crazy."
Hearing a sellout crowd in Indianapolis chant Lance Stephenson's name is the perfect indicant of just how far the Indiana Pacers and this town have come and what happens when hype introduces itself to a new reality.
Twelve days later, the traffic is thicker, the arena is fuller and Justin Timberlake is in the building. As are the Miami Heat. The Pacers' season finally is about to begin.
The Pacers are not just chasing the Heat, they are built to dethrone them. And their dominance at home over the Heat isn't about to slide as they defeat Miami 90-84.
Indiana's 20-3 start is something the franchise has never experienced before. The offense (even though the Pacers don't score a lot) is almost impossible to stop because the starting lineup has three players who can -- and very often do -- run the offense. Just depends on who happens to be handling the ball. Plus, all five starters play at their "natural" positions, which has become a rarity in the NBA.
The Pacers are a basketball purist's dream team. But it's what they have been able to accomplish on the defensive end that has most people -- even those far outside of Hoosier state lines -- believing that this is the Pacers new normal.
For example, restraining the defending champs Tuesday night to just 54 points on sub-43 percent shooting in the second, third and fourth quarters of a game in which they held them to 84 points overall. The Pacers held the Charlotte Bobcats to 11 points on 18 percent shooting in the first quarter of their 99-74 win; curbed the Minnesota Timberwolves' bench to 12 total points from only two players in a 98-84 win; held the Wizards to 14 points on 31 percent shooting in the first quarter of their 20-point win Dec. 6 (and 73 points on 40 percent shooting with no fast-break points for the game); and kept the Clippers to 17 points in the first 11 minutes of the first quarter (the Clips finished the quarter with 22 points) in the Pacers' road win (105-100).
Before that game, Clippers coach Doc Rivers called Paul George -- who finished with what has become a "typical" 27 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and 1 blocked shot -- the "most improved player in the league" as well as the League's "most valuable."
The Pacers lead the NBA in defensive categories that haven't been invented or discovered. The ability to close out on shooters so fast that shots are missed and overall shooting percentages are lowered. Second thoughts and changes of minds when players go into the lane and see Roy Hibbert's jersey or feel his presence. The disruption of offensive sets caused by George, Stephenson and George Hill when they go into defensive attack mode. All unmeasurable yet impossible to discount.
The Pacers wear teams down like Eminem wears a suit. They make opposing teams feel uncomfortable and look it, too. Worthless. Hopeless. Like they are hoping for lenience from a judge in court.
Holding opposing teams to an average of 89.3 points a game might take a backseat to this damaging combination: what the Pacers allow teams to shoot against them (41 percent), the number of turnovers they force per game (15.9; more than any other team currently over .600 except the Heat) and their 8.4-point point differential. These factors are impossible for teams to fight through and overcome.
Plus, Indiana has learned how to lock down leads and never relinquish them. In 18 of their 20 wins, the Pacers have led going into the fourth quarter. In fact, they are 18-0 this season when leading going into the fourth.
And some fool had the nerve to write in an NBA preview that this team could end up being "one of the most underachieving teams in [NBA] history."
When asked at the 15-1 point of the season, whether this start surpassed his expectations coming into this season, Vogel, with a hint of Gregg Popovich sarcasm and a slight smile on his face said, "I don't know, when I looked at the schedule, I could tell when we go on our West Coast trip we'd probably be 15-1. That we'd be underachieving."
The truth is, whether he'll admit it or not, he saw this coming. So did many close to and surrounding the organization.
None of what is happening is a surprise. The Pacers pushed the Heat in last season's Eastern Conference Finals. Then, in the offseason, they worked to put themselves in this position. They brought Larry Bird back as team president. They made changes to their bench and second unit (adding Luis Scola, replacing D.J. Augustin with C.J. Watson as the premier backup point guard, signing one of the NBA's untapped talents in Chris Copeland). Then things jelled. Hibbert emerged as an elite player coinciding with the superstar surge from George. And then they realized how good they could still be without injured Danny Granger. And there's still room to grow.
"I can't remember ever playing on a team like this," said Rasual Butler, who signed a non-guaranteed contract with the Pacers in the offseason. "While we are winning, we still haven't played our best brand of basketball yet. I know just from being around these guys that there's another level we can go to. And we will get there. We're still not where we want to be, and we know what we are playing for."
Their past seven games tell more about this team than any other non-playoff stretch they'll face throughout the season. Five road games against the four other top teams in the West. They went 3-2 and followed up with a home victory against the Heat. Against the Bobcats, they kept their perfect record at home even with George having an off night.
Each outcome provides insight into whether the Pacers actually have championship character or simply have gotten off to a historical start. So far, 23 games in, the former seems to be the answer.
David West, whom this team was built around, is given credit by many as the key factor in changing the team's culture when he arrived in 2011. Two years later, West knows what we are witnessing -- and he is experiencing -- is authentic and official.
"We came in with a focus this year," he said to a small contingent of reporters huddled at his locker. "Our confidence keeps growing as a group and keeps growing from game to game. It's still early. We got no room to look back, no room to feel good about what we've done. We are just going to keep building."
This is what happens when purpose is declared.