With road wins in Miami and LA, plus close losses at home against the Thunder and Magic, the 8-7 Indiana Pacers have risen an impressive 9 places from 20 to 11 in the ESPN's weekly Power Rankings.
This is what Marc Stein of ESPN had to say:
Road wins over the Heat and Lakers? Sandwiched around a gut-wrenching OT loss to OKC? Throw in the recent narrow L to Orlando, and you get one the finest 3-2 stretches in the nine-season existence of this committee.
Just imagine where they could have been had they won those close ones against the Magic and Thunder.
More impressive though, in my humble opinion, was the Pacers' rise in ESPN's other ranking, Hollinger's Power Rankings, which is based solely on a statistical model and not subjective views. Amazingly, the Pacers are ranked the 9th best team in the NBA according to those rankings. They are one place ahead of the Miami Heat and just one behind the Orlando Magic.
Again, can I remind people that this is a team that most experts predicted to be in the bottom 5, if not the bottom 3, in the entire NBA?
To put things into perspective, the Pacers are currently 2nd in the Central Division behind the Bulls, 5th in the Eastern Conference (2.5 games ahead of 9th place Milwaukee and 3.5 games behind equal first place Orlando and Boston), and 12th in the league overall.
What has caused this sudden improvement? It's impossible to point to any one particular thing, but there are many factors at play here.
It all starts with defense. Fuelled by Danny Granger's new desire to play D (after his playing time diminished on Team USA over the summer), the entire team has caught on, and are no longer content simply outshooting the other team. The Pacers are currently 8th in the NBA in points allowed (96.3) and 16th in points scored (99.9), which gives them a point differential of +3.6, which is 8th best in the league.
Compare this to last season, where the Pacers scored 100.8 per game but allowed the other team to score 103.8 (for a point differential of -3.0).
More telling is perhaps the defensive FG%, where the Pacers are just second in the NBA behind Utah, allowing their opponents to hit just 0.428 of their shots from the field.
The Pacers still need to control the ball a bit better -- they are averaging 15.3 turnovers per game and probably need to get that down to around 13-14 per game to be more competitive. However, on the whole, this is a team that can still win even when they are not hitting their shots, as we saw against the Lakers last night.
Individually, the players, as TJ Ford said, are starting to believe in Jim O'Brien more. I'm still not 100% convinced, but there have definitely been fewer calls for O'Brien to be fired this season than previous ones.
They've got a growing beast in Roy Hibbert, a rising PG in Darren Collison (who I believe can be a lot better than what he has shown as far -- as soon as he can be a little less erratic O'Brien will give him more miniutes), a new and improved Brandon Rush (who has been a LOT more aggressive this season whenever he touches the ball), hustlers in McRoberts, Hansbrough, and (when he's healthy) Foster, streaky shooters in Dunleavy and Posey, and of course, Granger is still Granger, but just better defensively. And I haven't even mentioned the rejuvenated play of TJ Ford and promising players in AJ Price, Paul George and Lance Stephenson (and what about Dahntay Jones and Solomon Jones?). Everyone on this team has a role and they are playing it better and better each day.
Notably, apart from Granger (who averages 37.7 minutes per game), everyone on this team is averaging less than 31 minutes a game. This will definitely help the wear and tear as the season progresses.
I'm rambling here, but forgive me for the excitement I'm sure many Pacers fans are feeling right now. As I said, there's a good chance the Pacers will fall behind 0.500 again with some tough road games coming up, but if the Pacers can be just a game or two under 0.500 by the end of December, they will be hard to keep out of the playoffs.