Philadelphia, PA – As the NBA playoff picture continues to grow clearer with each passing day, both the Eastern and Western conferences look rather similar.
Each side possesses two heavyweights, an old warhorse ready to make another run and an up-and-coming young, talented club that could surprise.
Out West, Oklahoma City and San Antonio are the two favorites with the Los Angeles Lakers and what figures to be a rested Kobe Bryant as the traditional contender that could be a problem. The Lakers' co-tenants at Staples Center, the Clippers, are the new kids on the block with a chance to turn some heads.
The East's big bullies are Chicago and Miami with Boston and Rajon Rondo creating a little fear thanks to a late-season run. The Pacers, meanwhile, are the "newbies" making significant noise for the first time since Reggie Miller was building his Hall of Fame resume.
In fact, Indiana has the type of length, and depth that could cause major headaches for anyone.
The Pacers have won 10 of 11 with just over a week to go until 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.
Center Roy Hibbert, the 7-2 Georgetown product, made his first All-Star team this season, while David West is the prototypical power forward who can push people around. The wings are manned by 6-9 twins Danny Granger and Paul George.
Add point guard Darren Collison to the mix and reserves like George Hill, Tyler Hansbrough and Dahntay Jones, and it's conceivable that Vogel has the deepest team in the East outside Chicago.
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.
The keys have been the continued development of Hibbert and George, two former first-round picks, as well as the signing of West, a two-time All-Star in New Orleans.
Granger scored 24 points in Philadelphia on Tuesday in the Pacers' 102-97 win over the sinking Sixers. It was the 13th straight game that the rangy forward has scored 18 or more. Meanwhile, a day after torching Minnesota from beyond the arc by hitting 5-of-7 3-point attempts, Granger did even better in Philly, nailing 6 of 8.
"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 he needed points, the ball swung to him and he made some big shots which turned the game around for us."
As good as Granger was, however, it was far more impressive to see the little things accomplished by Vogel's role players. Hill made his sixth straight start for the injured Collison and badly outplayed the far more-heralded Jrue Holiday, especially in the first half.
"He's stepped it up," Vogel said of his backup 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."
The desperate Sixers were able to make a decent run in the third quarter and it was Hansbrough's tenacity and effort level that set the tone for Indiana to take back the momentum early in the fourth.
Then, in the guts of the game late, West made Doug Collins pay for using the undersized Thaddeus Young at the four spot, using his prodigious strength on the blocks to help the Pacers get back-to-back buckets at Young's expense.
"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 mindset 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."
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.
"You know, I think we're getting there," West said. "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."