Pacers (20-3) edge Bobcats, eye franchise win record

Finally, I am back home, so allow me to quickly recap how the Pacers have been doing the last week or two (as if you don't know already).

So after that loss to the Blazers where Paul George scored 43, the Pacers went to Utah and won 95-86 in a game that was harder than it should have been, then headed to San Antonio (where they hadn't won for like 50 years), and shocked everyone with a surprisingly easy 111-100 victory that was over by the end of the third quarter. The next night, however, the Pacers got thumped by the Thunder in a game that was over by the half, and ended giving up the most points they had all season in a 118-94 loss.

That ended the Pacers' tough 5-game road trip out West (including 2 back-to-backs against the top 4 teams in the Western Conference) with a 3-2 record, which was as good as I thought the team could have gone. The rough schedule continued back at Bankers Life Fieldhouse against the two-time defending champs Miami Heat. Both teams brought it, and the Pacers seemed like they wanted it more in the end, winning a tough-fought 90-84 slugfest.

Tonight, the Pacers had a potential letdown game against the rising Bobcats, and they managed to barely eke out an unimpressive 99-94 win where both teams unusually struggled on defense. That win places the Pacers at 20-3 for the season, their best since the 2003-2004 season, when the team started 20-7 and finished 61-21, a franchise record that still stands.

There have been some chatter about the Pacers gunning for 70 wins, a feat that has only been accomplished once, by Jordan's Bulls in 1995-96 (which went an NBA record 72-10 — the Pacers were the only team to beat them twice that season!). At 20-3 (0.87), the Pacers are on target to win 71 games, but let's not kid ourselves and pretend that this current team, as good as they are, can get anywhere near that. Even with just 3 teams in the East with a record better than 0.500 (Pacers, Heat and Hawks) so far, there are just too many variables over the course of an 82-game season to suggest that the Pacers could do something only one other team in history has done before.

What the Pacers should top, if they continue on this present path, is the franchise record of 61 wins — provided there are no major injuries to any of their top 5 (George, Hibbert, West, Stephenson and Hill). The optimism is not just based on the team's hot start. Yes, only 6 of the teams they have played so far currently have winning records, though it's not the Pacers' fault that only 2 other East teams fall in that category — opponents such as Brooklyn, New York, Detroit, Memphis, Chicago and Minnesota, at least, were all expected to be strong teams before the season began.

The Pacers currently ranks third on ESPN's Hollinger Rankings (which is based on an advanced statistics model), just behind San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Their point differential — a good measure of a team's true strength — of +8.3, is second only to San Antonio's +9.9.

All three losses have come in the second night of a back-to-back and against good teams. The first loss was against a charged-up Bulls team that still had Derrick Rose and was looking to avenge an earlier loss. Rose also hit an uncharacteristic 6 threes in that game and the Bulls just couldn't miss. The next two losses were against the West-leading Blazers and Thunder. That's it.

Looking ahead, the Pacers have 12 more back-to-backs for the remainder of the season, and some of them are against pretty good teams — @Nets, @Raptors, @Hawks, @Nuggets, @Hawks, Nuggets, @Wolves, Jazz, @Bobcats, @Pistons, @Grizzlies, Spurs. If the Pacers go 6-6 on these games that still gives them an 11-game buffer to break the 61-21 record. The good news is that they've already played Miami once and the the top 4 Western Conference teams once (with the second game against each of these teams coming at home).

The other positive sign is that, unlike past years, this team is taking care of business against teams they ought to beat. Not all the wins have been pretty but they've managed to find an extra gear (especially on defense) when they have needed it. Over the course of an 82-game season, there will be nights when top teams lose to cellar dwellers, and the Pacers will be no exception, but if they can keep those losses down to 2 or 3 rather than the 7 or 8 they used to have, then that will place the team in a very strong position. 

One reason they have been able to remain so consistent is their strong starting unit, one of the best, if not THE best in the league. All five guys can light it up on any given night and Paul George has emerged as a genuine superstar who can be the closer the team has missed since Reggie Miller's retirement. The entire team's historically top defense is the other main reason, though they have shown some signs of slippage after their blistering start.

Depth is still a little bit of an issue for the Pacers, as evidenced by the struggles in back-to-back games, and could be the biggest obstacle (apart from health) standing in their way to breaking the franchise win record. The bench is much improved compared to last season with the addition of Luis Scola and CJ Watson (Chris Copeland has so far been a bit of a disappointment because he has played so sparingly), but there is still plenty of room for improvement. Orlando Johnson and Solomon Hill, who have recently been replaced in the rotation by veteran Rasual Butler, haven't been getting the job done, and Ian Mahinmi has been inconsistent, going from OK one night to serviceable the next and horrendous the one after. The (eventual) return of Danny Granger should help, but given how long he has been out and that he is traditionally a slow starter, I think it would be unfair to overestimate his potential impact, at least for the first couple of months after his return. 

I still feel like the Pacers are missing one final piece — be it a more reliable big man than Mahimni or a guy who can create his own offense off the dribble (Granger is more of a volume shooter) — away from toppling Miami and whatever team that comes out of the West. But in terms of getting to 62 wins I think all the pieces are there. I'm predicting 65 wins for this team, and that includes losses resting the key guys in the final few games in preparation for the playoffs.

Up next: Detroit (Monday), @Miami (Wednesday), Houston (Friday), Boston (Sunday)

PS: It looks like Paul George will be an NBA All-Star starter this season. He's second in the East behind LeBron (meaning he is ahead of Carmelo), which is a big shock to me and shows just how much attention the Pacers are getting this season. Roy Hibbert is currently 4th in votes for the East front court (fans now pick 3 front court players and 2 back court players instead of 2+2 and a traditional center), but he is the No. 1 center in the East in terms of votes thus far and should get picked by the coaches to give the Pacers 2 All-Stars in a single year since Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest (Metta World Peace) did it in 2003-2004.

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