Indiana Ready for Second Season
From March 27th through April 1st, there is no doubt that the Indiana Pacers (49-32) were playing their best basketball of the regular season. A 4-0 trip on the west coast, ending with a 109-106 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, had the team rolling with full steam ahead towards the end of the season. That is, of course, until the team ended the season losing five of their last six, the worst coming from a 97-75 defeat from Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Pacers know that with game one of the first round of the NBA Playoffs kicking off Sunday (1:00 p.m.) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse against the Atlanta Hawks (44-38) gives them an opportunity to put all of that behind them starting at Thursday’s practice.
“I think we let our guard down after the west-coast trip,” said Pacers guard George Hill.
“We felt well and we weren’t bringing that intensity that we had been bringing all season long into the last couple games of the season. It showed that it could bite us in the butt. So today was all mental, and focus, and I think we had one of our best practices all year.”
Pacers Center Roy Hibbert, who was drenched in sweat and seemed more focused than ever, made point to note how ready he and the team is for the second season.
“We worked up to this point,” said Hibbert. “We worked hard for a three-seed. I wish we would have worked harder to get a two-seed, but that is all said and done now. Playoffs are a time to embrace this, a time to make a name for yourself, and a time to work hard.”
The Pacers have split their season series with the Hawks at 2-2, taking the last two games with both of them being played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Pacers last defeated Atlanta 100-94 on March 25th at home, and Hibbert has nothing but respect for their bigs in Josh Smith (17.5 points per game, 8.4 rebounds) and Al Horford (17.4 points per game, 10.2 rebounds).
“They have bigs that can pick-and-pop,” said Hibbert.
“Al Horford is an extremely talented big guy, and Josh Smith should have been an all-star the last few years. He plays extremely well inside and out, and can shoot a lot of threes. Also their guards are very explosive, they can put up big numbers. So this is not a walk-over, they are a talented team that has been to the playoffs numerous times. We are going to be tested.”
Atlanta is in a similar spot as the Pacers, coming into the postseason with a bit of question marks as well after dropping five of their last seven.
Lance Stephenson excited for to play in first postseason games
One of the major reasons that Pacers have been so successful this season is the emergence of third-year veteran Lance Stephenson, who before this season was perhaps only known around the NBA for giving Lebron James the choke sign during game three of the Pacers series against Miami last May in the second round. However Stephenson, who averages 8.8 points and 3.9 rebounds, has averaged 29.2 minutes per game over 78 games over the case of the 2012-13 season.
“Born Ready” has found himself fitting nicely in a role of the fifth option in the Pacers top five-man rotation of David West, Paul George, George Hill, Roy Hibbert, and himself, but perhaps shines most with his ability to take the ball coast-to-coast and single-handedly being able to start fast breaks.
Though Stephenson has learned over the course of the season, something he may not have understood as a rookie and second-year player, is that he has to be able to pick his spots on the court.
“I learned to be patient,” said Stephenson on what has changed this season. “Also that the refs call real tight, so I have to be focused on defense. Just to play smart.”
Stephenson did not play in any of the Pacers playoff games over the last two years, so Sunday’s game against Atlanta will be the first time in which he plays any possessions of postseason basketball. Pacers Head Coach Frank Vogel doesn’t seem too worried on how Stephenson will respond.
“It is going to be different,” said Vogel. “First of all, there is nothing I can say to him to recreate what it is going to feel like. Only need to tell him just to enjoy the moment, to do what he has done all year and all of his life, and he will be fine.”
In a victory over Atlanta on February 5th, Stephenson finished the night with 14 points and six rebounds. Stephenson feels like he will be able to bring his extra boost of energy to the series against the Hawks, and if he is successful along with the team, the Pacers could be in for a good run.
“Everyone is focused and everyone is on the same page,” said Stephenson. “We are just playing together as a team, and when we play as a unit, no one can stop us. So if we play like that and translate it to the playoffs, we will be great.”
Paul George looking forward to his chance to shine
One of the overriding themes of the Pacers 2012-13 season is the transition of the Pacers being known as Danny Granger’s team to now being Paul George’s team. The 22 year-old as stepped up as one the premier players in the NBA, averaging 17.4 points per game, 7.6 rebounds, and has done a fantastic job defending each opposing team’s main offensive target (first in the league in defensive win shares at 6.3 according to basketballreference.com) on the wing.
The Pacers organization had always known with time that Paul George would eventually grow into the player he is today, knowing that results like a Central Division championship would eventually come along as his game does. George knows he still has plenty of lessons to learn out on the hardcourts, starting with the idea of perhaps being forced to perform under the pressures of the postseason.
“As I’ve pointed out, David West is the leader,” said George. “But if I have that moment, I definitely do not want to shy away from it. This is where I have to be put in that situation now. Whether I succeed or fail at it, I have to learn. I think this will be great for me moving forward.”
George has emphasized that he feels as if his body is ready to take on the demands of playing more minutes if necessary starting on Sunday’s game against Atlanta, and Head Coach Frank Vogel knows he is going to have to produce for the Pacers to be successful.
“We are a different team when Paul George is going offensively,” said Vogel.
“You saw how we started during the first two weeks of the season or so, and when he struggled down the stretch that we are limited in our scoring when he is not giving us that punch. When he is our leading scorer, we can go on a serious run.”