VIDEO: The Pacers overcome a long-standing issue of winning in Atlanta
HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The first 41 games of any NBA season serve as simply the warm up, an appetizer if you will, for a team with legitimate championship aspirations. A seasoned crew like the Indiana Pacers know as much and prepare accordingly.
A tone is set, goals are started and the heavy lifting begins.
For the Indiana Pacers, switching the flip from those first 41 games to the next 41 and beyond requires another tweak to the system. Busting out of the gate in the first half of the regular season and setting a wicked pace shifts them over from the hunter’s side of the bracket to the hunted side.
They can continue to play with that collective chip on their shoulders and envision Eastern Conference finals scenarios against the Miami Heat all they want. But they also have to be prepared for a new reality: nearly every foe they face is taking that same approach against the Pacers themselves, who own both the East’s best record and the league’s best winning percentage.
Fatigue, mental or physical, is no longer an option.
A night off? Forget about it.
Now that the bar has been raised and set, the Pacers have to chase their own heightened expectations in addition to all of the other goals they’ve already set forth.
“We still haven’t played out best basketball and obviously we don’t want to play our best basketball right now,” Pacers forward and team leader David West said after Indana beat the Hawks Tuesday night at Philips Arena.
“We’re a motivated group and we’re able to adjust to whatever. Obviously, after All-Star break the games become that much more important. I think from our standpoint, we have enough guys and enough weapons in this room to handle whatever comes our way. Our bench is getting stronger. And we feel like whatever teams throw at us, we can handle it. But we have to be able to take some pressure off of [Pacers All-Star] Paul [George] and make sure he doesn’t feel like he has to do it all by himself.”
Aside from Lance Stephenson, who is having a true breakout season of his own and forcing coaches and opposing players to reconsider how they deal with him, no other Pacer but George has had to deal with more changing coverages and wrinkles being thrown at him.
The All-Star starter has blossomed into a legitimate MVP candidate. He’s also one of the league’s most difficult defensive matchups because of his ability to play basically all over the court on both ends. He’s seeing defensive schemes designed to stop him that he hasn’t in previous seasons as a result.
“That’s the best indication of what the postseason will be like,” George said. “We’re going to get teams that know everything we want to do and they’re going to be physical with us. I think it’s just great preparation.”
Dealing with the bumps and bruises, that daily grind, is a part of the process for coach Frank Vogel‘s team. It’s what Vogel has been preparing them for the past few seasons, the physical and emotional toll of being an elite bunch day after exhausting day of the season.
“That’s just a part of our DNA,” George said. “There’s no pill we take. It’s just how we approach the game and how we approach the process. We do everything from a toughness standpoint.”
The fabric of the Pacers’ locker room — and their collective chemistry — will no doubt be tested as they add Andrew Bynum to their mix. The former All-Star big man comes with a hefty amount of baggage, not that his new teammates seem at all worried.
When asked how long it would take for Bynum to realize he is no longer in Philadelphia, Cleveland or even Los Angeles, where he was allowed to do basically as he pleased, George didn’t hesitate.
“I think the second he walks into our locker room he’ll realize that,” George said. “This team is as close as it gets. I don’t know how it is in other places and with the other groups [of players] he’s been with. The biggest thing is he’s probably just used to winning. He came into this league at 18 or whatever and to a team that was always a dominant team. And I’m not downplaying any other program he’s been with, but I think it’ll be a great atmosphere for him because we’re a winning program and we’re so close.”
That’s another thing that is sure to be tested for the Pacers now that they are on the other side of that dividing line. There’s no telling what sort of adversity that they’ll have to face the rest of the way. They need only look at the road traveled three years ago by the Heat team they’re trying to dethrone.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of Miami’s crew began their time together with unreasonable expectations. They were certainly humbled a time or two along the way to their back-to-back titles. It takes a certain toughness to weather the tough times and keep your DNA, as George put it, intact.
“I think our group has matured over the last couple of years to the point where we are good with setting goals for ourselves and handling that,” West said. “We want to obtain the No. 1 seed in the East, there’s no secret there, and we’re approaching every single game like it’s the most important game of our season. Because that could be the one game of the season that costs us what we want. So we’re going to remain focused, keep pushing one another, keep pushing on the defensive end and if we do that, we feel like we can win as many games as remain on the schedule.”