The Indiana Pacers haven’t beaten a .500 team since February 3. On that night, they showed up in Dallas and dismantled the reigning NBA Champs with second-year guard Paul George looking like the second coming of Michael Finley. As their least experienced starter hung 30 points, 9 boards, 5 assists and 5 steals on the Mavericks, it looked like the Pacers were a team that could legitimately beat any Eastern Conference team other than Miami or Chicago in the Playoffs. And with the way they played the Bulls in their first-round series last year? Who knows what might happen this May?
But after another loss to a good team last night in Atlanta, it is starting to look like the Pacers meteoric rise from the team that made the playoffs last year with a losing record to a borderline contender may have been based on unsustainable success not so dissimilar to Linsanity. From January 22 to February 3, Indiana went 12-4 despite playing 11 games on the road. They won in Boston, in Toronto, in Oakland, in Los Angeles (over the Lakers), in Chicago, in Orlando, in Minnesota and in Dallas. While that was a wonderful run that helped them compile the fifth best road record in the league as of today (12-9), it is starting to seem like it might have been an aberration during an NBA season that has seen seen many.
There is no reason for Pacers fans to panic. The fact is that this team did travel around the league and beat a lot of good teams on their home courts. You cannot erase that — not in the standings nor in this roster’s collective confidence. This Indiana team also still has better personnel, one through ten, than all but a few other Eastern Conference teams, even if they lack a truly elite player. And most important of all, the Pacers’ starting lineup has still performed at an elite level on both ends of the floor all year long (scoring 107.3 points per 100 possession while only giving up 95.1 points per 100 in more than 600 minutes).
But as the team continues to muddle through its current, brutal nine-game stretch of schedule that began Monday night in Chicago, it will be noteworthy to see if they can come out of the other side looking as rosy as they did going in. The next seven games are against Miami, Orlando, Portland, Philly, New York, New York and the Clippers. Only the Knicks, at 18-20 (but 10-5 over their past 15), are below .500.
So if, two weeks from now, we’re still talking about that February 3rd win over the Mavericks as being the Pacers’ last impressive victory, this team is going to seem a lot more ordinary than it has throughout most of this season. Minutes after Indiana completely out-classed the champs, Tim Donahue texted me “Is this for real?” We talked about it later that night, deciding that, ya know, geez, it might just be.
That could still be the case. But for anyone to continue to believe it, the Pacers are going to have to start beating some good teams again.