The Pacers tip off against the Knicks at Sunday supper time with an even 15-15 record. The level record has exceeded expectations, but not more than the actual play of the young core the team is building around.
After a tough start, the Pacers put together several impressive efforts and plenty of feel-good wins, including wins against some of the stronger teams in the league. Closer inspection revealed some schedule luck, as in catching the Miami Heat the first time without Jimmy Butler. This left Tyler Herro to win the game in the waning seconds, which was not possible under Andrew Nembhard’s watch.
That moment was a revelation, confirming Nembhard’s defensive bona fides as a rookie playing well above his draft position. Still, to this point, the Pacers have had one of the easiest schedules in the league regardless of which website metrics you choose to review. To very loosely paraphrase Colts owner Jim Irsay, the Pacers schedule thus far has been in the bottom quartile of the lower quartile.
But starting last week, things have turn significantly more challenging for the Pacers who, along with the Nuggets, have the most challenging remaining schedule. Miami exacted their revenge last Monday and the Pacers still have to go to South Beach twice. The Pacers were able to rise up and beat the Warriors on Wednesday, before letting a monster effort in Cleveland slip away on Friday.
Now, the upstart Knicks are in town riding a six-game winning streak for the first of four games remaining between the teams. Then the Pacers hit the road for the next three starting in Boston. A gnarly little Celts, Heat, Pelicans roadie which seems like a lump of coal in their stocking from the league for Christmas.
The Pacers still have several games against the top teams in the league beyond those three. The game at the Garden against the Celtics will be the first of three remaining on the schedule. The Pacers also have three more against the Cavs. They also have all four games remaining against Central Division leader, Milwaukee. Then there is the two-game season series against Memphis, currently the top team in the Western Conference.
There has been plenty of excitement mixed with a few dashes of consternation about the great start this Pacers team is off to after all expectations leading into the season were focused on the future and player development. Instead this team has shown it can play with any team in the league even if, as in Cleveland, they don’t have that mature closer to seal up the most challenging wins.
With the schedule taking a turn for the worse, or let’s say more challenging, these young guys should get a crash course, and hopefully some quality reps, in what it takes to finish games against the best teams in the NBA.