The Eastern Conference's big bullies figure to be Chicago and Miami with Boston and Rajon Rondo creating a little fear thanks to a late- season run and some impressive veteran leadership.
An Orlando team anchored by Dwight Howard used to be among those East powers but these days the Magic are trying to press on without their All-Star center. Howard's season officially came to an end earlier this month when he underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc and remove fragments in his back.
While the big man's absence has likely eliminated a serious distraction in the Orlando locker room revolving around his trade demands as well as his deteriorating relationship with coach Stan Van Gundy, it's also magnified just how dominant the Howard was as a defender. Orlando was 4-8 overall without Howard and struggled mightily to stop teams from scoring.
The Pacers, meanwhile, are the "newbies" on the scene making significant noise for the first time since Reggie Miller was building his Hall of Fame resume in Indy.
In fact, Indiana has the type of length, and depth that could cause major headaches for anyone, something the injury-plagued Magic are sure to figure out quickly when the two clubs meet in the East quarterfinals.
The Pacers won 11 of 14 heading into the postseason and it's always nice to enter the dance on a roll, just ask the St. Louis Cardinals over in Major League Baseball or the NFL's New York Giants.
Coach Frank Vogel's starting lineup features four players at 6-foot-8 or taller, making the half-court a virtual nightmare for opposing offenses.
"I think (the Magic's) their chances are slim," NBA TV analyst and former player Chris Webber said on a recent conference call. "I don't think they can handle the inside presence of the Pacers' players without the shot-blocking presence of Dwight Howard."
The Pacers, who finished behind the Bulls in the Central Division, haven't moved past the first round of the playoffs since 2005. They've met the Magic twice in the postseason, the last time in 1995 with the Magic winning in seven games in the East finals.
POINT GUARD: Jameer Nelson is no All-Star anymore but he remains a steady quarterback that can be counted on to run things smoothly. The St. Joseph's product rarely turns it over and will kill you with a big three if you think about sagging off. However, he is undersized and can be a liability at the defensive end.
Darren Collison entered the season as the Pacers' starting point guard but Vogel made the switch to George Hill after Indiana played so well with him running the show down the stretch after a Collison injury. Hill is lightning quick and offers more explosiveness than Collison, although he's also apt to make a few more mistakes.
"He's stepped it up," Vogel said of his new starting point guard. "I mean he did it in San Antonio. They had Tony Parker, probably headed to the Hall of Fame. He gets hurt and George Hill comes in and coach (Gregg) Popovich is not sure whether to start Tony Parker anymore. George Hill is doing the same thing here. He's playing terrific basketball at both ends of the court and is a big reason why we are on this roll."
SHOOTING GUARD: The rangy Paul George can handle the ball very well for his size and can run the floor. He looked like a bit of a reach as the 10th overall selection in 2010, especially since he was projected at the same spot as Danny Granger but his ability to move to the backcourt was a nice surprise. Ball-handling, a strength when he is on the wing, becomes a weakness in the backcourt, however, making Indiana susceptible to a trap now and again.
J.J. Redick is a hard-working guy in constant movement that is one of the best pure shooters in basketball. He's come on down the stretch with more playing time. Like most shooters, he's streaky and is up and down from night to night. The problem with Redick lies on the defensive end. The Duke product tries but just isn't quick enough to handle most NBA two guards.
CENTER: Center Roy Hibbert, the 7-2 Georgetown product, made his first All- Star team this season and has turned into one of the NBA's top five pivots. He's still not quite as physical as you would like for someone his size but in a league short on quality centers, you certainly won't be getting any complaints from Vogel or the Pacers.
Obviously if Howard was on hand, this would be a big edge for the Magic even with Hibbert's impressive development. Without the All-Star, Van Gundy has settled on the undersized Glen Davis, the former Celtic that has always had a nice touch around the basket but struggles with weight and conditioning issues. Davis also went down against the Bobcats earlier this week with a sprained right ankle and there is no guarantee that he will be 100 percent for this set.
"He is their team on defense, he's been that way since he got there," Webber said when talking about Howard. "When he's not there, the lane will be wide open for penetration, post-ups and rebounding on both ends which will allow Indiana to control the pace. There isn't an intimidation factor; no one fears Orlando without Dwight Howard."
SMALL FORWARD: Granger has been the man in Indy for years now and has gotten a ton of heat from the locals over the past few seasons, but this is the first time the former All-Star has had a supporting cast around him capable of being something more than mediocre. Granger can bang down low or step out and sink the three. He's a tough offensive matchup for just about anyone and one of the NBA's top pure scoring threats
"There is always criticism for a team's best player and Danny Granger gets a lot of criticism for what he's not," Vogel said. "What he is, he's a big shot maker."
When Hedo Turkoglu went down with a facial fracture, Van Gundy moved veteran swingman Jason Richardson here. Richardson is an extremely athletic player who can give the opposition headaches in transition and can also knock it down from beyond the arc, a Magic trademark. He can't match up with Granger on the defensive end, however.
POWER FORWARD: The sweet-shooting Ryan Anderson is one of the NBA's most improved players this season, leading the league in three-pointers made and also being in the top 10 in offensive rebounds.
"There has been so much going on with our team that it's been hard to take a breather and take a step back, but this year is such a blessing from God for me," said Anderson. "I'm very humbled by the opportunities that I have gotten. It is still surreal for me, and I don't think it will stop being surreal for me anytime soon."
David West, on the other hand, is a proven commodity and more of a natural power forward that's comfortable on the blocks and pushes people around with his prodigious strength.
"You know, I think we're getting there," West said of his team. "I think collectively every time we come in, we see things on the film that we can improve. Guys are being professional about taking the approach to make sure we do it. As long as we continue to grow, continue to play forward, we'll continue to get better."
BENCH: Put Collison on the bench with reserves like Leandro Barbosa, Tyler Hansbrough and Dahntay Jones, and it's conceivable that Vogel has the deepest team in the East outside Chicago.
"That's who we are," Vogel said when talking about his team's versatility and reliance on a whole host of players. "Five guys can be go-to-guys. Ball movement is your best friend and you invite double teams whether it's the pick-and-roll game or playing out of the post.
"You have a mind set of drawing people to the ball and moving it knowing that you have four other options that can put the ball in the basket. It's a pretty dangerous combination."
Obviously with Howard and Turkoglu sidelined, Van Gundy has had to shorten things up in Orlando and will rely heavily on veterans Quentin Richardson and Chris Duhon as well as young big men Earl Clark and Daniel Orton. That's like bringing a knife to a gun fight in this series.
COACHING: Vogel has turned out to be a Godsend after the surly Jim O'Brien, a coach with a bad disposition and awful communication skills. Vogel reinvented things with his preparation and by connecting with his players and allowing for more input.
Van Gundy remains one of the game's best tacticians and is a premier X's and O's guy but his constant run-ins with Howard showed maturity and communications issues. This is likely his last stand as Magic head coach.
PREDICTION: Conventional wisdom says you have to go through the rigors of a deep playoff run before you're a true championship contender in the NBA. Indiana probably isn't ready for the Larry O'Brien trophy just yet, but the Pacers sure look primed for that first step.
"The team that everyone is overlooking is the Indiana Pacers," NBA TV analyst and former NBA player Steve Smith said. "Frank Vogel and the entire staff is doing an excellent job the way he managed minutes and incorporated Leandro Barbosa and George Hill. That team, because of their depth and size up front, could be the sleeper team that has a chance to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals."
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: PACERS in 5