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COLUMN

Reggie Hayes: Pacers poised for playoff surprise

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For more sports commentary, follow Reggie Hayes on Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

Indiana's cohesive team flying under the radar

Wednesday, April 18, 2012 - 9:17 am

Indiana Pacers big man Roy Hibbert began to roll out of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse locker room Monday night, having reviewed a spanking of the Minnesota Timberwolves for a handful of reporters.

I jumped in front of him and took a charge.

OK, I sidled up and politely said, “Can I ask another question?”

Do you feel the Pacers are under the radar?

“We're the best-kept secret,” Hibbert said. “We don't need to have national exposure. Teams that play us know what's coming.”

Do you like it that way?

“We love it that way,” Hibbert said. “We don't need the spotlight. The big teams can have it.”

The best-kept secret might be turned loose in little over a week. The best Pacers team since the days of Reggie Miller stands as the No. 3 seed in the NBA's Eastern Conference, trailing only “big teams” Chicago and Miami. After beating Philadelphia 102-97 on the road Tuesday, the Pacers are 10-1 in April. They're hot. They believe. And, if you judge by casual watching of the NBA on television, they barely exist.

It would be easy to think there are only five teams in the NBA: Heat, Bulls, Celtics, Lakers and Thunder. Those are the ones always on, always leading ESPN, always being overanalyzed by Charles Barkley and friends.

The Pacers? They improved their record to 40-22 on Tuesday night, closing in on home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

If you're not paying attention, you're missing quite a team.

“I don't know if we're underrated,” forward Danny Granger said. “We're not talked about a lot. But teams in the NBA know what we're capable of. Maybe everyone in the sports world doesn't know. But I'm sure if win a playoff series and make some noise in the playoffs, we'll get more attention.”

Are these Pacers capable of playoff noise? They don't have the “superstar” player that leads SportsCenter. But few teams in the NBA – the Spurs come to mind – have assembled such an impressive ensemble that works and operates as one.

Granger, I suppose, qualifies as the lead star by virtue of points and souvenir jersey sales. And he puts up a solid 18 points a game.

But the Pacers, to me, most resemble a college-oriented pro team, in the sense that the whole seems more potent than the parts.

Their first unit – Hibbert, Granger, David West, George Hill and Paul George – might be relatively anonymous outside of Indianapolis. Their opponents know who they are, no question. While the game I covered came against the zombie-like Minnesota Timberwolves, the Pacers' 32-7 start was an impressive piece of teamwork dominance.

The Pacers are playing with supreme confidence at the most opportune time of the season.

“I write the word ‘believe' on the board every single game all year,” coach Frank Vogel said. “I told the guys before (the Minnesota) game, we're 8-1 in April and have the best record in the NBA in April. I talk about believing how good we can be. It's no longer a sell job. I'm not trying to persuade our guys they can be great. We believe it.”

Perhaps the Pacers' most impressive quality is one that's impossible to quantify: Chemistry.

Of course, it's much easier to get along when you're winning, but togetherness and winning can be a chicken-or-egg question. In the end, it doesn't matter which came first, they're certainly intertwined.

“It's one of those things, like a good chef finding a recipe,” Granger said. “That tastes good with this. This tastes good with that. All of a sudden, you have a masterpiece.”

Vogel clearly has the coaching touch, too. He's adept at using his full rotation, getting the most out of a deep bench that includes Tyler Hansbrough, Leandro Barbosa, Lou Amundson and Dahntay Jones. Darren Collison remains on the way back from injury.

“We talked about suffocating defense, that's what we want to go into the playoffs with, going in with a head of steam,” Vogel said. “Our starters are really dialed into defending at a high level.”

As Granger mentioned, having the 7-2 Hibbert as the anchor of the defense is a “nice commodity.” The interior with Granger and West is quick and lengthy. The guards, Hill and George, are dynamic, picking their spots and avoiding too many turnovers.

“Our focus is really high right now,” Granger said. “We have to come out with the mindset that we really want to step on their throats from the beginning.”

The more the Pacers win, the tougher it'll be to be underrated or overlooked. They will be a dangerous team for any East powerhouse looking ahead to the NBA Finals.

“We just want to continue the momentum we're starting to build,” West said. “Hopefully, we'll play some of our best ball in about a week and a half.”

Regular-season success is nice. Teams make their names in the playoffs. Pay attention to the Pacers early. You'll want to be in on the secret.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. E-mail Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com