The “s” word can have a negative connotation, but there’s no other way to describe the Indiana Pacers so far.
And then some.
The Pacers won their sixth consecutive game to improve to 12-5 Wednesday night after a 103-91 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center. Two successful stops on a four-game Western road trip has reaffirmed an impressive makeover.
Where they once started out 0-3, they’ve since won 12 of 14.
“The whole thing is starting to gel,” center Ian Mahinmi said in an understatement during an on-court interview televised by Fox Sports Indiana.
Last season, this was a banged up bunch missing Paul George, fighting so hard to make the playoffs but coming up a tiebreaker short. Now, the Blue & Gold Swagger is back. President Larry Bird’s team has served notice it intends to regain its status as one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams.
Admittedly, this didn’t seem possible. Not this soon. An offseason overhaul saw center Roy Hibbert get traded and forward David West opt out of his contract. This team wasn’t going to have the “bigs” to hang in there on the boards in their much-publicized switch to “smallball.”
Bird overhauled the roster with seven new guys. Of course, it was going to take time for them to gel. Heck, the Pacers didn’t even concentrate on defense during the preseason. It was more important to focus on the up-tempo style of play that Bird and head coach Frank Vogel are emphasizing to boost scoring.
George, however great he was as a two-time All-Star, would need time to get back to his old self after that gruesome broken leg robbed him of all but six games last season. Plus, he made known his displeasure with being switched to power forward. When your best player is unhappy, that can be a problem.
But guess what? The Pacers’ bigs have hung in there. When the smallball offense spreads out defenses and this team hits shots, as it did with 19-of-26 3-pointers in a recent road win at Washington, it’s awfully explosive. The new guys, led by shooting guard Monta Ellis and center Jordan Hill, have fit in well.
The Pacers are averaging 101.9 points, which ranks 10th, and is 6.6 points more than their opponents, a scoring defense that ranks fourth. Last season, the Pacers ranked 24th in scoring at 97.3 points per game and tied for third in scoring defense at 97 points allowed.
And George? The reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week scored 31 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against the Clippers. He’s scored at least 30 points in four consecutive games, in seven games overall, and has bumped his season scoring average to 27.4. He averaged a career-best 21.7 points in his last full season in 2013-14.
Asked during his postgame interview what he says to George, Vogel said, “Don’t change a thing. Literally I’ve said that to him. (He’s) Just playing with great confidence on the offensive end and doing what he’s always done all over the court, rebounding, defending, passing the basketball, sharing it, and just being a complete player.”
Nobody is talking much about George playing the “four” anymore. It’s just as Bird and Vogel tried to explain. He plays everywhere. He’s flourishing in this offense. Perhaps the best part is George insists he’s not yet 100 percent.
That’s not all he’s saying.
After knocking off the Chicago Bulls 104-92 Friday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to move past their rivals for second place in the Eastern Conference, George repeated a previous contention that his rebuilt team has been overlooked. Disrespect is an old motivation, but it still works.
“Yeah, to start this year out, we weren’t a top-10 or top-20 team,” George said of national media perception. “They probably still don’t see us that way. But we know in this locker room what we have. We just go out and play.”
Asked about his “overlooked” comment, George made it clear he meant what he said but he’s not going to continue to dwell on it.
“Yeah, we are, we are,” he said. “But that’s another story. Again, we’re focused on what we have control over.”
It’s fair to say the Pacers might be the only ones who thought they could play this well this soon. It’s a long season, a grind, but an encouraging start is a complete reversal from a team that won its opener and lost six straight then played catch-up the rest of a 38-44 year last season.
I asked Vogel after the victory over the Bulls what word other than surprise he would use to describe his team.
“You know, I don’t know if there’s another word,” he said. “It’s early, you know? It’s early. We believe in who we can be this year. It’s that simple.
“I love the defensive versatility we have to match small lineups and we have a small lineup that is capable of just flat out exploding, like you saw in Washington, that’s very difficult to guard, that’s forcing opposing ‘defensive coordinators’ to change their lineups to try to match up with us. We’re dictating the terms, and that’s exciting. We don’t have big-name bigs, but we have really good bigs. Lavoy Allen, Jordan Hill and Ian Mahinmi are really good veteran guys and I don’t want to talk about Myles Turner, Rakeem Christmas and Shayne Whittington, guys that are young players who are exciting, too.
“One word? I don’t know.”
Surprising sums it up.
“If that was the case,” George said, “we should get more recognition.”
Perhaps it’s time to substitute that word for a phrase that begins with the same letter — So far, so good.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.