Unbeaten Pacers' eyes on No. 1 goal
NEW YORK – The voice cut through all the ice crunching and chicken-finger munching in the Indiana Pacers locker room as if from a bullhorn, snapping up heads buried in cell phones.
"The Celtics just beat the Heat by one," it said. "In Miami."
The heads went back to the phones.
"Wow, they shot 58 percent and lost."
"Jeff Green with a 3 at the buzzer."
"Whoa, what are they now?"
"I think 4-2."
The Indiana Pacers were still basking in a 96-91 victory over the Brooklyn Nets that was satisfying for so many reasons. It made them 7-0 on the young season and finished perfect off one of those dreaded four-games-in-five-night stretches. It was their best road win to this point. And they did it by out-executing the Nets over the final minute in a game they didn't think they'd have won a year ago at this time.
But the Heat, the team that put them out of the playoffs the past two seasons, are never far from the Pacers' minds. And, even in November, neither are the standings.
"We believe in this locker room that we can get the No. 1 seed and we started the year with that attitude," said Pacers forward David West after registering 18 points and eight rebounds. "The fact that Game 7 of the conference finals wasn't in our home building we felt was the difference in a trip to the Finals, and we're going to do everything in our power to get a Game 7 in our building. And we have to start from the beginning of the season."
Saturday night, the Pacers were playing in a reasonably hostile environment against a Nets team that was badly looking to get a statement victory. After blowing one in Washington on Friday night, the expectation-laded Nets were 2-3 and looking for a pivot point.
With three minutes to play it was a three-point game, and the Nets had their $80 million starting lineup out there, one loaded with experience and savvy. Yet it was the Pacers who made the clutch plays, got the important defensive stops and made the icing free throws.
"A year ago we don't win a game like this," Paul George said.
A year ago the Pacers were 19-21 on the road. They didn't get their third road win until their ninth road game -- they're 3-0 now. They didn't sweep a back-to-back last season until December. This season they've done it three times before the end of the season's third week.
The Pacers have what the Nets, who are feeling a little queasy sitting at 2-4 currently, do not. They have continuity. The core players of the team have been playing together for three seasons now, and the new bench players like Luis Scola and C.J. Watson are veterans who know how to play a role.
That's how West and George can sense an opportunity and double-team Deron Williams to force a crucial turnover in the final minute. And how Kevin Garnett, despite all his experience, can throw the ball into the sideline with 6 seconds left because of miscommunication.
Continuity and stability have huge value in this league, especially early in the season. When that is in place, a team can start talking about playoff seeds six months before it will really matter.
"If we're going to have playoff success, having home-court advantage would give us an edge," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "We were 8-1 at home in the playoffs last year. To lose a Game 7 on the road, that's a tough environment. We're trying for that No. 1 seed. We're going for it."
Adding credibility to this goal is the fact the George is off a tremendous start. Fresh off signing a max contract extension and winning the Most Improved Player Award, there isn't the slightest hint of a hangover. Rather, George seems to be growing more comfortable as he edges himself to the cusp of the superstar club.
Saturday he played what could now be described as an average game. He had 24 points and six rebounds on 8-of-14 shooting. He made the biggest shot of the night, a hanging 15-foot jumper from the baseline that gave the Pacers a seven-point lead with two minutes to play.
Seven games and here is what his averages look like: 25 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and just under 2 steals a night while shooting 47 percent from the field and 43 percent from 3-point range. He's also one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and gets assignments accordingly.
"Whoever the best wing scorer on the court is, he's defending that guy for the entire time he's on the court," Vogel said. "So to be able to do that and the toll that takes on your legs and then to come down and carry the offensive load -- very impressive."
The shooting percentages are the most impressive number early on. That's been the one big weak spot in George's game, the area where he has not been efficient in his career. But his game is evolving and his confidence is growing, and it's showing in the numbers and in the results. Vogel said that he didn't even run plays for George until about midseason in 2012-13. Now he's far and away Indiana's top option, and he's been delivering early in the season.
More importantly, for a squad that is so out there with its goals, George is openly welcoming the load. He's fast becoming the face of what appears to be one of the most confident teams in the league.
"I feel like I'm coming into my own, I feel confident out there," George said. "I want to be separated from the offensive guys, the scorers, I want to be considered an elite player on both ends."