After reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in back-to-back seasons, the Indiana Pacers’ window to compete for a championship seemingly closed this summer. Paul George suffered a broken leg in a Team USA scrimmage, and Lance Stephenson signed with the Charlotte Hornets in free agency. While the Pacers might not be making a run to the NBA Finals, they could find themselves back in the playoffs this year, something that seemed highly unlikely a short time ago.
Having played 60 games in the 2014-2015 season, the Pacers are just one game in the loss column out of a playoff spot. Indiana lost 30 of their first 45 games, and appeared destined to find themselves in the NBA Draft Lottery. But playing in a depth-deprived conference has kept them in the postseason hunt.
Since Jan. 25, the Pacers have gone 16-9, including a recent stretch that has seen them win nine of their last 11 games. Even though Indiana is eight games under .500 and 12 games behind the Central Division-leading Chicago Bulls, they still have a legitimate chance to finish as high as No.7 in the East.
Without arguably their two best players from last year, the Pacers have remained in the playoff picture by getting contributions from other players. Coming to Indiana from Cleveland last year, C.J. Miles is averaging 12.6 points per game, the second-highest total of his 10-year career. David West has been consistent, and he’s shooting over 50 percent from the field since the start of February.
The biggest difference has come from inserting George Hill back into the starting lineup. The point guard had missed 11 consecutive games with an injury, in addition to the first two months of the season, and he came off the bench for the first five games of his return. Indiana’s stretch of nine wins in 11 games started when Hill reclaimed his position as a starter.
In February, Hill averaged 13.6 points per game and 6.2 assists per contest, which is more assists than he’s ever averaged in a full season. In Indiana’s last two games, Hill is averaging 19 points, six rebounds and five assists on 55.2 percent shooting.
The rest of the team has benefited from the change in the starting lineup. Hill and Miles have replaced Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Watson, and the backcourt tandem is playing much better off the bench. Stuckey has seen his numbers improve, averaging 18.4 points and shooting over 53 percent from the field in his last seven games. Watson has done a good job off the bench, and the Pacers went 7-14 with him as part of the starting five.
Hill’s return has given the Pacers a chance to reach the playoffs, but George's return could make Indiana a legitimate threat to their first-round opponent. With Indiana showing signs that they might not be done at the end of the regular season, the high-scoring small forward is looking to get back on the court this season.
"That's how I see the whole picture playing out, me being the missing piece and healthy and full strength and the freshest out of the group going into the most important part of our season, the playoffs," George said, via the Indianapolis Star. "If I can make an appearance and start rolling leading into the playoffs, the story will write itself."
George continues to rehab his leg, though he could not give a timetable for his potential return. If he were able to play at all, it’d be a major boost for Indiana. He led the team with 21.7 points per game last season, adding 6.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists, while being named first-team NBA All-Defense. This year, Hill is the team’s leading scorer at just 14.1 points per game, and he has sat out two-thirds of the season.
It won’t be easy for the Pacers to land the No.8 or No.7 seed, since four other teams are within 2.5 games or better of both playoff berths. Miami and Charlotte are currently in the postseason, though that could change very quickly.
Indiana has two games remaining with both the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets, who are also fighting to get in the playoffs. They host the Hornets on April 3.