SAN ANTONIO — Something is going on here.
The Pacers don’t take the time to stop and admire it. They don’t talk about it and they don’t let it roll around on their tongues like fine wine and savor it. They simply work at becoming more efficient on the offensive end, more suffocating on defense and more prepared for every next step along the road.
That road became a little longer and a little bumpier when their itinerary from Salt Lake City was blown away in the frozen winter storm that iced in their scheduled arrival and forced them to land instead in Houston and form a three busload caravan to reach the next stop in central Texas.
The Pacers barely noticed the hiccup, just as they barely noticed the Spurs racing out to a 13-point lead in the opening minutes of the second quarter on Saturday night.
Something is going on here.
That’s what Paul George said after another one of those splendid efforts that lets him sniff the same rarified MVP candidate air as LeBron James. You can watch him pull up and fire in one more 3-pointer that rifles into the bottom of the next, change direction more times than Shakira’s hips on a drive through the lane for a dunk or pull the defense to him like metal filings to a magnet and then find one of his teammates for an open shot and admire the sight.
Or you can be like George and the Pacers and already have a 111-100 in the rearview mirror and be looking at nothing more than the next step ahead, which just happens to be in Oklahoma City tonight.
So much for the talk of these being Paper Pacers, an 18-2 product of the wretched Eastern Conference. Since leaving home a week ago, Indiana has gone 3-1 through the West, in the process beating the Clippers and now taken a club to the decades-old yardstick of consistency in the Spurs, leading at one point by 26. That was Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili being run ragged out there, not a motley collection of Knicks, Nets and Bucks.
“For anybody to think that we didn’t play anybody, it’s bogus,” George said. “Everybody is professional in this league. Look around the league and teams lost to teams that they shouldn’t have lost to. We just go out and do our business. We handle our job. We were prepared to get a win against on the best teams in this league.”
After letting San Antonio run free and easy through the first quarter, the Pacers applied the defensive squeeze of a python, clogging the paint, contesting shots on the perimeter, putting a hand virtually everyplace the Spurs didn’t want one to be.
Just as impressive was a span from the second to the third quarter when the Indiana offense nearly boiled up right out of the pot. It was a stretch that saw the Pacers score on 17 consecutive possessions, which is sometimes difficult to do even during skeleton drills in practice.
“Our offensive execution,” George said. “That’s one red flag that we’ve have and where we can continue to get better. If we can start executing on the offensive end and not always be relying on our defense to win us games for a full season and the post season.”
He says it all and they do it all matter-of-factly, though quite adroitly with a one through five starting lineup that has no real holes and a bench that is capable if not spectacular. In less than a calendar year the Pacers have gone from a group traveling on a path of discovery to one that’s found an identity, a method and a purpose.
“Last year was a year of a lot of uncertainty, just not being fully together,” George said. “This year we understand what we want to get to and what’s the main goal. That’s winning it all. We won’t go so far as to say it’s a win-or-bust year or anything like that, but we really want to win it all and we’re in a position to do so.
“All last year we felt like we could be one of the elite teams in this league and were going to take the league by storm. But it’s one thing to say it and the next thing is to go out and prove it on the court. I feel like we’ve done that, we’re still doing that and now people have to take us seriously.”
The difference is a year ago they were a group trying to demonstrate to the world and themselves they believed and now they’re simply showing night in an night out they belong. The last time the Pacers had won in San Antonio (2002), the Spurs had hung only one of their four championship banners from the rafters and that was in the Alamodome.
“So yeah, it means a lot,” George said. “Something is going on here.”