Stretching the Field: Pacers dispel thoughts on demise

( - The Indiana Pacers were an afterthought, written off and left for dead almost two months ago.

The Pacers' 15-30 record on Jan.23 was proof that morbid transformation to the afterlife had come.

It's been seven weeks since the eulogy, but the Pacers haven't received the memo. They are the NBA's version of Saint Lazarus and life has been restored in Indy.

Staring down a record 15 games below .500 and plodding along without star forward Paul George because of a gruesome broken leg, the Pacers never wavered in their pursuit of gaining the respect they once earned and are closing in on that 180-degree turnaround.

The Pacers have reached the Eastern Conference Finals in each of the previous two seasons and are two-time defending Central Division champions. They can kiss winning a third straight Central title goodbye because either the Cleveland Cavaliers or Chicago Bulls will capture that honor.

But that doesn't mean the Pacers won't make a fifth consecutive appearance in the playoffs. They're starting to click with 15 wins in the past 19 games and, according to coach Frank Vogel, are playing with more discipline. Vogel said after Thursday's 109-103 overtime win versus the rival Milwaukee Bucks that his team was "reckless" with fouls and needed to adjust.

Vogel's words resonated with the Pacers (30-34), who are now riding a seven- game winning streak and have 13 victories in the past 15 contests.

The fans have been playing their role in this revival.

"I think our fans are rallying around this team this year. They've always been behind us, but it was kind of a struggle early on with the thought that maybe it was a down year," Vogel said. "I think they're starting to realize that we got a chance to do something special, that we got a chance to be the surprise team in the second half of the season. We're on that path, but we can't get ahead of ourselves. We still have a lot of work to do."

Milwaukee is only 3 1/2 games ahead of Indiana for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, while Miami is just a game behind the Pacers. Charlotte is 1 1/2 games in back of the Pacers for the No. 7 spot with Boston 2 1/2 games off the pace and Brooklyn trailing by 4 1/2 games.

There's still plenty of games remaining for any of those teams to make a significant jump in the standings, and Vogel is pleased to see his team back on track.

"It's good to have our guys back," a grinning Vogel said of the Pacers' play in recent weeks. "Winning is fun. Losing is not."

Indiana is third in opponents' scoring at 96.1 points per game and had allowed 86 points or fewer in six straight games before needing overtime to dispatch the Central-foe Bucks. The Pacers have held the last seven opponents below 40 percent shooting and Milwaukee made just 38.5 percent from the floor.

The Pacers won despite turning the ball over 20 times (tying a season high), after going 18 straight games with 15 or fewer miscues.

"It's the team moving better, playing with better energy, better momentum," Pacers forward Luis Scola said. "We're getting more things accomplished and winning more games, moving up in the standings. A lot of good things today. Let's see if we can keep it going."

Riding an NBA-best 9-1 record since the All-Star break, the Pacers have been relying on guard Rodney Stuckey the past few games. Stuckey is averaging 20.1 points in his last 10 - all off the bench. He has three 30-point outbursts over that span and finished with 25 points against Milwaukee.

"He was great again. I hope he keeps it going," Vogel said. "Maybe this is me getting greedy, but I thought he was having a poor shooting night and I look up he's got 25 points on 8-for-17 shooting. So that's pretty good."

Stuckey is averaging a team-best 13.1 points for the Pacers as they await the return of George. George is taking his time to get back on the floor and Vogel recently touched on the pending season debut of the All-Star.

"Honestly, we're not even thinking about Paul right now," Vogel said. "How effective is he going to be having not played in a year? This is a serious injury. He still has a lot of hurdles to pass before he even gets back on the court. We're trying to become the best possible team we can be without him and if he gets back, that's just going to be a bonus."

The Pacers are hoping George's return doesn't spoil what's going on. But how can that happen? George transformed himself into one of the NBA's elite and his presence will only benefit the Pacers.

Indiana is 2-0 on a four-game home stand and has prevailed in each of its last seven games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The venue should be nearing full capacity for how well the home team has been playing.

Reaching the playoffs again is a strong possibility for the Pacers, but not a priority at the moment. It's a game-to-game approach.

"Right now the basketball we're playing is so free and so fun and trusting we don't need to put that type of pressure on it," Pacers swingman C.J. Miles said. "The biggest thing we have right now is you see everybody playing hard, and for each other and the smiles and the bench jumping up and down ... understanding time and score, but at the same time being able to play with confidence."

All that winning is enough to ignite spirits.