NEW YORK -- Paul George was asked to envision a scenario in which everything broke right for the Pacers heading into the playoffs -- and Indiana's franchise player liked what he saw.
"If C.J. Miles and I get hot like we were in November; Monta Ellis continues to play well; Myles Turner steps up and continues to play at a high level like he's doing and we get Ian Mahinmi and Rodney Stuckey back from injuries, this team can be pretty scary," George said after the Pacers routed the Brooklyn Nets 114-100 on Wednesday night at Barclays Center.
The reality, however, is that the Pacers (26-23), who currently occupy the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference standings, are far from a finished product -- a team still in search of an identity just two weeks before the Feb. 18 NBA trade deadline.
"A lot of guys have been tested, having to change positions," said Miles, who busted out of a prolonged shooting slump in a big way by scoring a team-high 27 points off the bench. "It's been a battle trying to figure out who we are."
Pacers president Larry Bird told ESPN.com that he has been active in talks with other teams as he attempts to upgrade his roster, but it's unknown if anything will come to fruition.
"People are calling and we're calling people to see what's out there and what they're looking for," Bird said. "We have conversations going on now. They're not major deals, but they're deals where we feel we can help us. You never know how it's going to end up, but we are talking and we are listening."
Getting George back on track is paramount to everything Indiana is trying to do. After missing all but six games last season because of a horrific broken leg, the 25-year-old forward set the NBA world ablaze by averaging 29.5 points in November while shooting 47.5 percent from the field, as the Pacers won 12 of their first 17 games.
"It's like somebody that's been grounded for so long and then you finally get to go outside and play," George said. "Every time I step out on the floor and I look at my leg I've still got the scare, I've still got the bone protruding out, but it's always something where I remember the journey and the rehab and what it took to get to this point. Every game I've been playing it's been great. I didn't think I'd get to this point so soon."
But George's field goal percentage began to plummet from there, as did his team's record. He shot just 37.1 percent in December and 40.6 percent in January, and Indiana's record stood at 23-22 as of Jan. 26.
At the beginning of the season, George openly voiced his displeasure with the team's decision to move him from small forward to power forward. And lately, he has admitted to having a tough time acclimating himself into his new role with Indiana reverting back to playing big after going small.
"I think with the big lineup I have to be much more of a scorer and with the small lineup I have to be much more of a creator," said George, who has had two 11-point performances in his past four games. "I think it's just about being consistent with the guys I'm going to be out there with, and injuries have made it tough to develop chemistry with one another."
George doesn't feel like his legs are where they need to be from a strength standpoint, but he says he's healthy. And while the Pacers will make a concerted effort to limit George's minutes whenever possible, the team has no plans for him to miss games in order to rest.
"He's fighting being tired and getting beat up a bit, but he'll be fine," Bird said. "He's struggling right now and he's frustrated, but he'll be all right."
Going from small to big
Constant lineup changes have prevented the Pacers from becoming a cohesive unit.
After moving on from the slower, more plodding, half-court-oriented frontcourt of Roy Hibbert and David West, Indiana opened the 2015-16 campaign with a starting five of George Hill, Ellis, Miles, George and Mahinmi. (Only George and Ellis have started every game so far, with 11 players starting at least one game in 2015-16.) That group has seen the court together for 327 minutes in 29 games, but has been largely ineffective, getting outscored by 6.3 points per 100 possessions.
"We aren't finishing games. That's the problem. We look a little disorganized at the end and we're not running our plays to perfection. We're not taking care of business."Larry Bird, Indiana Pacers President
Miles, for example, has frequently switched between starting and coming off the bench -- while also having to play some power forward despite standing just 6-6 -- because of injuries. Mahinmi (back) is currently day-to-day, while Stuckey (ankle) has been out since mid-January and won't return until after the All-Star break.
Nevertheless, the addition of Turner into the starting lineup on Jan. 28 seems to have somewhat stabilized the rotation. The 19-year-old rookie fractured his thumb just eight games into his career, but has been a stunning success ever since his six-week absence because of the injury. His early first-year highlights include a 31-point game in Golden State on Jan. 22 and a highlight-reel rejection of LeBron James' dunk attempt late in the fourth quarter Monday.
The 6-foot-11 Turner's ability to hit jumpers (44.9 percent from midrange) allows the floor to be spaced properly on offense, while his shot-blocking ability is another asset for the league's fourth-ranked defense in terms of efficiency (99.3 points per 100 possessions). Factor in Ellis' increased production after getting his knee drained, and you've got the makings of something -- assuming George can assimilate. Indiana is currently seventh in pace after finishing 19th in 2014-15.
Eventually, the Pacers would like to start Mahinmi, Turner, George, Ellis and Hill -- a combination that has played just 21 minutes in one game together all season (albeit with great success in an extremely small sample). That would then enable the bench to include Miles, Stuckey, Jordan Hill, Lavoy Allen and rookie Joe Young.
"It's a little bit of an evolution. We've been playing big and small all year," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "We weren't playing 48 minutes small most of the season. So we're familiar with it, and obviously with the veterans we've had here and my style of coaching, we've done this for years. It's something that's more comfortable than what we were doing earlier in the year, to be honest."
Crumbling in crunch time
Bird likes where his team is at and remains confident that the Pacers will eventually be postseason bound. But if there's one area in which Indiana's president would like for his team to improve, it's offensive execution down the stretch. The Pacers are 3-7 in three-point games and 1-5 in overtime games. In games within five points in the final five minutes, Indiana is getting outscored by 8.3 points per 100 possessions.
"We aren't finishing games," Bird said. "That's the problem. We look a little disorganized at the end and we're not running our plays to perfection. We're not taking care of business."
Nevertheless, Indiana ranks in the top 10 in net efficiency rating despite its offense generating just 102.1 points per 100 possessions. And there's reason to believe that Bird, with potential trade chips such as Solomon Hill and all of his team's first-round picks, could perhaps upgrade in the form of adding a 3-point shooter or another piece -- if he wanted to go that route.
Cleveland remains the favorite in the East. Toronto is next in the pecking order based on record, and Bird thinks Chicago is better than its wins and losses would indicate. But there's still plenty of season left for the Pacers to put themselves in the conversation.
Then it's just a matter of everything breaking right. And if it does, the Pacers could be dangerous.
Pretty scary, even.