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Fresh legs should give Pacers edge in playoff race

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A year ago, the Pacers were running on empty. A year later, the numbers show they should have plenty left in the tank to drive toward the playoffs.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

By the time Paul George completed an inefficient 4-for-17 shooting night against the Knicks last March, he had run a total of 172.4 miles through 68 games -- the fourth longest distance in the league during the 2013-14 season, as expanded upon here by CBSSports.com's Ken Berger. As the season wore on, the legs of Indy's two-time All-Star wore down. After kicking off the season shooting a blistering 48.6% from the field in October, George's numbers steadily declined with each passing month, connecting on just 41.0% of his field goals in January and a woeful 37.2% of his attempts in March. In retrospect, fatigue clearly was not the only thing ailing the Pacers during their second-half swoon; nonetheless, it is difficult to deny that it was not one of many contributing factors.

On the year, four of the Pacers' starters averaged over 30 minutes per game and two of them (Paul George and Lance Stephenson) racked up over 35 minutes each contest. By April, Indiana's starters led the field by a wide margin when querying basketball-reference's line-up finder for 5-man units in descending order of minutes played. Recording 1422.1 minutes of game action together, the only other two teams in the league to even come close to that staggering minute total were Portland's starting unit with 1290.6 and Golden State's with 1051.9.

Now, instead of running on fumes, the Pacers' fresh legs are helping them gain momentum and giving them an edge over their competitors.

According to NBA.com/stat's Player Tracking data measuring speed and distance, Solomon Hill has run the longest distance for the Blue-and-Gold this season. Coming in at 131.9 miles, the second-year Pacer has run approximately one and a half marathons less than Paul George (172.4) ran by March 20 of last year.

More importantly, no player on Indiana's roster averages over 30 minutes per game this season. Rather, the Pacers have nine players averaging over 20 minutes per contest and eight players averaging at least 9.0 points per game.

Below shows how the Pacers compare to those teams vying for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, in terms of the number of players on each playoff hopeful team's roster traveling more than 100 miles or recording more than 30 minutes per game.

2014-15 Wear and Tear Player Distance 100+ miles 30+ minutes per game
Charlotte Hornets G. Henderson 127.4 28.5*
K. Walker 108.6 35.1
A. Jefferson 105.4 31.4
Mo Williams 104.1 30.0
Miami Heat G. Dragic 152.7 33.4
L. Deng 131.4 33.4
M. Chalmers 130.5 30.8
D. Wade 97.2 31.9
Brooklyn Nets J. Jack 125.8 30.1
J. Johnson 146.6 35.2
D. Williams 107.0 31.3
Boston Celtics A. Bradley 137.1 31.4
E. Turner 120.0 26.6*
B. Bass 101.3 23.0*
Milwaukee Bucks G. Antetokounmpo 137.0 30.6
M. Carter-Williams 121.7 33.3
Indiana Pacers S. Hill 131.9 29.8*
R. Stuckey 101.6 26.5*

"I agree with [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's] approach to managing guys," head coach Frank Vogel told NBC Sports last season. "I think there's a compound effect, because you get some of your key players rest, but the other guys, (a) you get them work, and (b) you see when they rest guys, the other guys usually win games. And that's because they're excited about the opportunity to play extended minutes.

"I think it's a very, very strong philosophy. We just haven't crossed a bridge where it's necessary for us yet."

Indiana did cross that bridge prior to the game against Milwaukee last season and injuries have forced the Pacers to cross that bridge for nearly the entirety of this season.

The current version of the Pacers' starting lineup (George Hill, C.J. Miles, Solomon Hill, David West and Roy Hibbert) has only played in 253 of a possible 325 games (65 games multiplied by 5 players). Put more simply, those starters have missed 22.15% of the games this season. If one substitutes Paul George in as a probable starter over Solomon Hill, then that group has missed 42.15% of the games this season.

There is a lot to be said about the benefits of rhythm over rest, but in the case of this year's edition of the Blue-and-Gold it appears that rest has done their collective body a lot of good. Bench players (i.e. Luis Scola, Rodney Stuckey, etc.) are more prepared to contribute and returning starters (i.e. George Hill, David West and Roy Hibbert) should be fresh for the stretch run of the season.

Indiana has won eight of it's last 10 games, and is still striving for a playoff berth. With lower minute counts and an improved depth chart, fatigue should not hold the Pacers back from reaching their goal.

(Stats cited are from NBA.com/stats and Basketball-Reference. All numbers are prior to Indiana's game against the Toronto Raptors)