Analysis: Saturday night's alright for ever-evolving Pacers

A healthy Paul George and improved roster have made a difference for Indiana, which has won eight of 10 games to boost optimism.

It seems so long ago now, those awful losing streaks, so many disappointments in the final minutes, the comebacks coming up short, and then some other games where the Blue & Gold guys didn’t stand a chance.

Paul George walked around in street clothes. The only positive news about him was that he might play at the end of the regular season. The Pacers played their guts out but came up a tiebreaker short of the playoffs.

Nobody knew when the moody man in the middle, center Roy Hibbert, would show up on offense. Forward David West showed his age the more he played. Worse yet, the final year of their pricy contracts were sure to handcuff this organization and prevent enough needed change in the short term.

That was in April, when the Pacers sang the blues and shuffled off into the offseason after a season-ending loss at Memphis.

Fast forward to Saturday night, when the new-look, overhauled Pacers were short-handed due to illness and injury yet obliterated the Milwaukee Bucks 123-86 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

And obliterated isn’t overstating it.

The Pacers’ season high in points saw Chase Budinger and Glenn Robinson III throwing down dunks in the final quarter. The Bucks just wanted it to end.

“They punched us in the mouth,” the Bucks’ Khris Middleton said, “and we didn’t do anything about it.”

The new Blue & Gold have won eight of 10 after an 0-3 start. What’s up with that?

“It’s like that in this league,” George said of the sudden change. “A couple players come in and out, a couple lineups shift, and a whole season can turn around just like that. That’s how it’s been for us.”

PG, for starters, is healthy and a scoring machine. Trading Hibbert while West opting out enabled president Larry Bird to overhaul the roster with seven new faces who provide energy and effort every night. This night, George Hill (upper respiratory infection) and Myles Turner (thumb surgery) were absent, yet others were eager to step in and do whatever.

There’s a bit more scoring punch, not yet the spike Bird wants to see over the course of an 82-game regular season, but it’s coming along. Indiana’s 13-game average of 99.6 points per game a bump from than last season’s 97.3 average, which ranked 24th in the 30-team league. 

Bird is hoping for five or six more points per night, which will happen if his team keeps hitting 15 3-pointers, another season best. The lead grew to as much as 40. C.J. Miles scored 21, George and Jordan Hill 20 each, Robinson 17, Budinger 13 and Monta Ellis 12.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said. “It looks good at times and it doesn’t look good at times, but it’s coming along.”

A team that didn’t work much on defense in the preseason is getting the hang of that, too. The Pacers are creating turnovers — winless Philadelphia had 31 in a 112-85 Pacers road win Wednesday. The Bucks committed 23 on Saturday.

Remember when there was all this talk in preseason about the Pacers’ switch to a small-ball lineup, you know, to get more current with an NBA? And George didn’t exactly embrace the idea of playing power forward?

Bird and Vogel repeatedly told reporters that George need not get so worked up. Some nights, PG would be the four. Some nights, he would be the three. It was all about matchups. Bottom line, an amused Bird said on media day, George was going to play all over the floor on both ends, and he was going to thrive.

That’s what has happened. He’s averaging 24.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 4.8 assists so far. He looks more than healthy. He looks like a guy who intends to make a run at his preseason goal, being a league MVP, which some probably scoffed at when he brought it up on media day.

“We’ve got a group of good guys in here,” George said.

This isn’t to say the Pacers are world beaters just yet. Defending champion Golden State visits in a couple of weeks, and the Warriors haven’t lost yet in 14 games, as if anyone needed to be reminded of what “elite” means.

But for Pacers fans who endured their share of humbling moments and not enough reasons to cheer a year ago, there’s no denying they enjoyed Saturday night.

“We’re going to play hard for ‘em,” George said of the fans. “We’re going to bring it. That’s our job.”

Robinson followed up a fourth-quarter alley-oop dunk with a 3-pointer. The Bucks called timeout.

Fans stood and cheered. Five days before Thanksgiving, they were most thankful. Pacers TV commentators spoke of Christmas coming early.

It’s been that encouraging of a start.

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.

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