This Indiana Pacers team just continues to impress, exceeding all my modest expectations so far this season. Of course, no one should get carried away with a 7-game winning streak at the start of the season, but when the Pacers' goal is to be the No. 1 seed in the East (and perhaps the entire NBA), any distance they can create between themselves and Miami, Chicago and Brooklyn (with my apologies to the Knicks) is welcome.
And with a solid 96-91 road victory against a loaded Nets team (granted, one still trying to get the pieces to fit) -- their 4th game in 5 nights, by the way -- the Pacers are now 3 games ahead of second place Philly and Miami. In fact, no other Eastern Conference team apart from the Pacers have less than 3 losses on their records thus far.
Again, it's too early to be jumping on Oprah's couch, but if they can remain healthy, there is no reason to think that the Pacers can't keep up this kind of play. Remember, Danny Granger has yet to play a game, George Hill is not even close to 100% with a nagging hip injury, and new pieces such as Luis Scola and CJ Watson, as solid as they've been, aren't in complete synch with the rest of the team. So while Miami battles health problems to Wade and LeBron (not to mention championship fatigue) and Chicago and Brooklyn try to integrate their new pieces, Indiana has a perfect chance to keep running away with the regular season.
For now, let's just be happy that they're still winning. Paul George has got that look in his eye this season, which speaks volumes about his character considering he just got paid (whereas other guys usually put in the effort in a contract year). He's super confident and is currently hands down a top 5 player in the league, possibly even top 3. Just take a look at his stats, which have actually dropped the last couple of games: 25.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4 assists, 1.71 steals, 3 turnovers, 26 PER, shooting 47% from the field, 43% from 3-point range and 85% from the line. Those are MVP numbers right there.
Equally important to the team's success has been Roy Hibbert, whose inconsistent days appear to finally be behind him -- at least on the defensive end. I thought Roy was going to be in trouble tonight against the best offensive big in the game, Brook Lopez, but instead Roy (kind) of got the better end of that duel with a 15-point, 11-rebound double-double (with 2 blocks) while holding Lopez to a 16 and 7 night. Roy will never be a consistently dominating offensive presence, but his defense is now widely regarded as the best in the league, and even the officials are now giving him the benefit of the doubt on a lot of 50-50 calls. (If only they could give some of that respect to Ian Mahinmi, who looks horrible on paper but has actually been a solid backup for Hibbert and would be a great backup if only they'd give him the same respect.)
Lance Stephenson continues to be the X-factor, someone who can create, push the ball, finish at the rim and now even hit the open three with buckloads of confidence. He's always been someone who can turn the tide of the game by himself, but now he's mostly doing it in a good way. Lance is currently the team's second-leading scorer after George with 14.4 points to go with his 5.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists. Not bad for a work-in-progress.
David West is not yet in a groove, but he's getting there. Tonight's game was a perfect example of why he's still the most reliable player on the team, though Paul George is quickly closing in on that title. The team now has the luxury of two guys (three when George Hill is healthy) who can hit big shots when the team needs them the most. I thought Kevin Garnett's length would give West all sorts of problems but instead he used his mobility and money mid-range jumper to neutalize the matchup disadvantages.
And last but not least, the bench. Ohhhh, the bench. Luis Scola offers the relaible scorer the Pacers bench has missed for eons, and if the Pacers can get a contributing Granger back, that's going to be a nasty one-two punch, a poor man's version of the Paul George-David West duo for the Pacers reserve unit. Throw in CJ Watson, the perfect reserve point guard who can comfortably step into the starting role, the rim protection of Ian Mahinmi, a poor man's version of Roy capable of taking on most second-unit bigs, and the confident offense of Orlando Johnson. And we haven't even touched on the potential of Solomon Hill, the guy the Pacers are trying to groom into the next Granger, and Chris Copeland, the sharp shooter who will eventually get a chance to show why the Pacers used part of their mid-level exception on him.
Pacers fans shouldn't get too ahead of themselves right now, but there's no reason not to be excited by the hot start.
Looking ahead, the Pacers take on Memphis at home after a single day of rest in a battle for defensive supremacy in the league. It should be an ugly game and no one should be surprised if the Pacers get their winning-streak snapped given it's their 5th game in 7 nights -- but regardless fo the outcome it's clear that this Pacers team is for real and is really going for it this season.