The Indiana Pacers are playing the final six weeks of the season with dual vision. Of course they want to lock down the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and own homecourt advantage throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Yet to reach that epic series with the Miami Heat, the Pacers have to be finely tuned. They have to figure out how to maximize the talent of the recently acquired Evan Turner, whom the team sacrificed longtime favorite Danny Granger to nab from Philadelphia.
The Pacers are the most versatile team in the NBA and displayed that Saturday when they edged the Celtics 102-97 in a rather drab performance until the final six minutes. The Pacers held the Celtics to 27.3 percent shooting in the final period while Turner and Paul George combined for 18 of the team’s 26 fourth-quarter points.
With point guard George Hill out with a bruised left shoulder, coach Frank Vogel decided to try various experiments with his lineups. He ended the game with Turner, generally a small forward, playing point guard. Turner, who has punished the Celtics in the past, flourished in the role.
While Vogel said he is hardly thinking about playoff preparation, all the signs point to the Pacers reaching elite status in April. He has six weeks to use Turner in different combinations with Lance Stephenson and Paul George, both of whom handle the ball effectively.
Vogel, the former Celtics video coordinator under Rick Pitino, also has six weeks to work Andrew Bynum back into shape. The Pacers signed the disgruntled and mercurial big man for depth behind Roy Hibbert. Although he was actively playing with Cleveland at the time he was banished in late December, the Pacers felt he needed better conditioning so they shut him down.
Vogel said it will be a “few weeks” before Bynum makes a game appearance as he gets into better shape and undergoes exercises to reduce the swelling on his surgically repaired knees. Signing Bynum kept him from going to Miami and it also allows the Pacers to have a playoff-experienced big man to play handfuls of minutes in the postseason.
So Vogel may say he wants to win all of the final 24 games and he truly does, but he also wants to discover the best lineups to compete with and overcome Miami.
“We’ve got to have guys come in and fill big spots,” George said. “Evan is as versatile as it comes. So he filled right in and did a great job. Whether he’s at the wing or the point guard, he’s comfortable there and we’re comfortable with him.”
Indiana’s lone objective since losing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals to the Heat last season has been to unseat Miami. The Pacers’ players haven’t hidden their disdain for the Heat. They fully understand that regardless of where the Heat land in the playoff seedings, they will be the favorite in a head-to-head series because they have the game’s best player.
Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade is healing from knee issues and is approaching his previous form. Chris Bosh is the best perimeter shooting power forward in the game and the Heat prepared former No. 1 overall pick Greg Oden for months to make flash appearances in the middle and he looks more comfortable as a result of it.
It would be Oden who would face off against Hibbert in a playoff series for stretches and the Pacers need Bynum’s presence when Hibbert needs a break. Everything Indiana does for the next six weeks will be to prep for this series, and the players understand that Turner could take minutes from starters.
“It’s a huge luxury for us to have guys come in off the bench and continue to contribute when our starters are resting,” George said. “We’re going to need that. As well as you know, playoff time, it’s tough. As much as guys want to be out there for 48 minutes, it’s almost impossible to do so, so we’re going to need efforts from our bench.”
Vogel is not a modest coach when it comes to admiration for his team. And he appears giddy at its potential when Turner and Bynum become acclimated into the system. The Pacers are in the top three in three defensive statistical categories — points per game, field goal percentage, and 3-point field goal percentage —so their defense is among the league’s best. But that means little if they can’t consistently score against perhaps the best trio of our generation. So the task is arduous.
“Again, we have the luxury of having guys that are interchangeable, a roster that is probably one of the best as far as having depth,” George said. “So coach has the luxury of mixing and matching and playing around a little bit without losing focus of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Check back in late May for the results of the finished product.