“We want to step away from that shadow as the ‘little brothers’ of this division,” Paul George told NBA.com. “Their success is the era. This is a new age, this is a new team. It’s ours till they take it.”Baby steps Indiana, baby steps. (or Baby Dragons, if you ask Jason Whitlock.
Yes, it is early, but the Pacers have clearly taken care of business so far. They beat the teams they should beat every time, and they passed the first test of the season. (Grade: A) It is a young season and plenty of things will happen between Game 5 and Game 82, but the Pacers are monsters at the moment.
At the moment, being the key word.
Before we start talking about what's down the road for the Pacers, let's look at where they've been.
A year ago, the Pacers were 2-3 at this point, and I was cursing be decision to purchase NBA League Pass. There wins were over the Toronto Raptors and Sacramento Kings, and neither looked pretty while they got destroyed 101-79 by the San Antonio Spurs. Roy Hibbert looked like he took the money on his deal and hadn't practiced since. Paul George was the future, but the future looked no more than slightly above average. Obviously the Pacers grew into a team that challenged the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, but they didn't look like much of a team until late in the season.
So what has changed in Indiana?
Well, with the caveat that these are small sample sizes, let's take a look.
Paul George is playing like a monster.
|Paul George through five games|
He's actually shooting more from range than at the basket, which is working well so far for him as he's the league's third leading scorer. Looking at his shot performance, he's doing no worse than average from any part of the court with smart shot selection. He has no hesitation when he pulls up for three pointers, but is still working his way to the basket more than he did last year. Last year he had eight free throws attempts through give games. This year he's averaging 6.4 per a game. Let's hold up superstar talk, but he's certainly updating his resume so far this season. I hate to try to talk about intangibles because I'm not talking to Paul George or watching enough to really guess what his mindset really is, but he looks more aggressive and confident than ever. He looked great in the ECF, but now he looking like and playing like he's one of the league's best. We'll see how long he keeps this going because right now he's playing at a career high level. Even if these numbers fall slightly, he's still showing he's making his way up the chart of the league's best players.
But what else is going on in Indiana so far? What is so different about this year's team that is off to a franchise best 5-0 start.
Roy Hibbert isn't playing like crap, and he's averaging 5.2 blocks a game. rebounding slightly better than last year, and playing better defense even if his offense is slightly down. The Pacers run through the playoffs has earned him the reputation as an elite defender, and so far he's averaging one less foul even with the bad Pelicans game as far as foul trouble. We'll see, but so far it looks like he's getting the benefit of a doubt when he goes to block shots. He has worked on using the NBA's rule of verticality well. When 12.5 percent of plays end in a Hibbert block, their opponents defense isn't going to do very well.
Opponents are shooting under 30 percent at the rim with Hibbert there. It certainly a team effort as the wings help force opponents into bad situations, but those numbers are ridiculous.
Lance Stephenson a year ago was an unknown commodity, even to Pacers fans. He had 35 points through five games and wasn't starting until the seventh game of the season.
16.4 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 4.6 AST, .470 FG% .538 3P%
Like many of the Pacers we saw him grow in the playoffs and right now he, like PG and Hibbert, are playing out of their minds right now. It was natural to expect progression out of this team, but all of this so far has been rather amazing. Lance was a starter for most of last year, but was still a very raw player. Even when he slumped against the Bulls in the first half, he wasn't slacking off on defense or anything. he played through and shot out of it like a good player should. He's been part of the success that maybe hasn't gotten enough attention. We knew Paul George was slated for a break out year and Hibbert was a good interior defender, but Lance so far was somewhat unexpected. He had grown certainly, but I didn't expect him to be a player who was going to start to draw defenders away from the basket like he's going to if he keeps this up. He still drives it to the basket hard and finishes well, but if he can hit a couple of threes a game, and right now he's a 2.8, he's going to help the Pacers offense spread out opposing defenses.
Lastly, the bench is no longer go awful that the sight of Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustine and Gerald Green checking in made coach Frank Vogel cry, knowing any lead the Pacers might have had was about to put down like Old Yeller, but in a more violent, snuff film fashion.
This year, we've even seen C.J. Watson has been able to hold down the point with George Hill taking time off to heal. Indiana's bench is now average, but that's an improvement. If nothing else mentally the Pacers, or at least their fans can know their bench isn't the 29th in +/-. Last year Tyler Hansbrough was the only Indiana bench player with a double-digit PER. This year only Hill, Ian Mahinmi, and Luis Scola have PER's under 10. The league average is 15. I'm not counting Chris Copeland and Rasual Butler because they've played less than 5 minutes.
Again, small sample sizes, but this bench is showing itself to be a definite improvement so far.
Needless to say, we should expect some regression and low points as the year wears on. All these numbers are amazing and the best of these players careers right now for the most part, so that's natural. But what it is showing is that some of the players individual ceilings might be higher than expected.