Are the Indiana Pacers a better team than last season?
The Pacers opened the season on Media Day with the goal of improving on their past season. That meant earning at least a No. 3 seed in he East and getting past the second round of the playoffs and into the Eastern Conference Finals.
With their Game 4 win on Tuesday, the Pacers officially improved on last season's playoff run by winning their third game in the second round. It's a milestone worth noting even if it means nothing until that fourth second-round game is won. Still, considering where this team started the season, making it this far is an impressive feat.
So many things fell into place in the 2011-12 season (good health, Derrick Rose injury, Dwight Howard tearing apart Magic) that expecting a similar season and playoff run seemed to set the team up for a disappointing year.
Then the team learned Danny Granger would miss significant time. Suddenly just making the playoffs seemed a more reasonable goal. Remember, in November, Paul George hadn't taken the leap and the fifth starting spot was up for grabs.
Gerald Green started the first three games and while the Pacers were 2-1, Green's erratic play had Frank Vogel looking at a different option. So Sam Young took his turn, still allowing Paul George to remain at shooting guard. But Young didn't play many minutes out of his starting role and the Pacers lost all three games on the road.
Lance Stephenson started the next game against the Washington Wizards, scored 12 points in the win and looked like he belonged. Stephenson started the rest of the season to solidify one of the most effective starting units in the NBA.
That's a lot of change for a young team to endure at the start of a season to go along with losing their leading scorer. But according to Paul George, the key players remained in place from the prior season and that familiarity helped them develop into a stronger team.
"We kept the same core " George said. "We obviously didn't know Danny was going to be out, but our core has been the same and we grew all together."
That growth took place over the offseason and the trust built as young players like PG and Stephenson put in the work to get better which allowed that core group to maintain their confidence in one another.
"I worked extremely hard this summer," George said. "Lance worked extremely hard this summer. We've got some great guys here, so it just took some time at the start of the year for everybody to gel and for us to get back in our groove."
While the Pacers struggled in November, they did find that groove. But were they good enough to make another deep run in the playoffs? How could they improve on last season while relying so heavily on PG and Stephenson?
The team had to adjust their style of play and while they were familiar with one another on the court, they had to carve out new roles and then accept a style of play that worked best going forward. David West started believing his team could be special once he saw those roles fall into place.
"I thought after initially we got our legs underneath us, changed our style of play and adjusted to the guys we had in the lineup, we kind of developed an identity and we've been able to stick with that throughout the year," West said. "And it's just worked us."
The Pacers identity was all about defensive toughness and out-working opponents to find ways to win on nights when buckets were hard to come by. Having a variety of ways to win games can build confidence in a young team and the success they started having confirmed the approach Frank Vogel took with the team was working.
"Guys have embraced their roles," West said. "They made plays when opportunities are there. Stepped up when opportunities are there and we just continue to be tied together, rooting for one another and really just going out and competing. I think guys are doing a great job of just competing on every single possession, trying to win every single possession."
And that's why the Pacers are indeed an improved team over last season and one win away from a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. We'll see just how much better they are at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night.
If the Pacers can continue to impose their will on the Knicks and close out the series on the road, then the small step forward they took on Tuesday by winning one more playoff game than last season, will become a giant step forward with a chance to play the Miami Heat once again in a spotlight series for higher stakes.