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SPORTS

Fast-paced Indiana Holding its own in Eastern Conference

December 13, 2022

When the season began, it wasn’t clear how much longer Myles Turner would be with the Indiana Pacers.

That’s still a reasonable question — but now there’s another one alongside it: How much longer can those Pacers stay in the playoff race?

After losing 57 games a season ago, the Pacers are a .500 team at the moment — and that’s despite dropping seven of their last 10. Coach Rick Carlisle’s group can push the tempo, and the Pacers have a 22-year-old standout in point guard Tyrese Haliburton. Indiana is not a team that should be taken lightly.

“They beat us the last time and they’re ahead of us in the standings,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said Monday when asked about not overlooking opponents. “There is more parity, I think, overall in the league and I think it’s good for the league.”

The Heat did beat Indiana 87-82 on Monday night in what was easily the Pacers’ lowest-scoring game of the season. They’ve been held under 100 points only one other time.

Indiana is fifth in the NBA in pace after ranking 18th last season.

“I’m not that surprised, seeing Ty … for two months last year and knowing we’d get (T.J.) McConnell back and he plays pretty fast,” Carlisle said. “But it does tell a story of who we are as a team and it tells a story that if we don’t come up with rebounds, we’re not going to be able to play fast. We love playing fast. It’s fun (and) it’s gotten interest from the fans in this team.”

The Pacers are showing the type of improvement that can easily stay under the radar. They aren’t leading their conference like New Orleans, another sub-.500 team from last season. Instead, they’re in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference. Joining them there are the New York Knicks, who have won four straight to pull a game above .500 — after going 37-45 in 2021-22.

No matter how the rest of this season unfolds for the Pacers, they have some young talent they can get excited about. Haliburton is averaging a career-best 19.4 points per game in his third season. Bennedict Mathurin is averaging 17.6, and fellow rookie Andrew Nembhard had 31 points and 13 assists in a win over Golden State last week. Nembhard also made a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat the Los Angeles Lakers last month.

That talented trio is one the Pacers can move forward with even if they end up dealing the 26-year-old Turner and 29-year-old Buddy Hield. Although for now, those two are still with Indiana and making their own contributions, averaging about 17 points apiece.

Turner is in the final year of his contract and could bring back a good haul in a trade. Indiana is still less than a year removed from a major makeover. The Pacers traded star forward Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento in February and received Haliburton in return. Hield also went to Indiana in that deal.

The Kings have certainly reaped the benefits. After losing 52 games last season, they’re above .500 and positioned in the top six in the West. While it’s not clear how long Hield will be with the Pacers, they’re off to a decent start, too.

Indiana does have a couple of obvious weaknesses it needs to shore up. The Pacers are allowing opponents to shoot 25.8 free throws a game, the second-most in the NBA. Rebounding is also an issue. The 6-foot-11 Turner is one of the game’s top shot blockers, but on the boards, the Pacers are vulnerable.

Indiana ranks 27th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage. The Pacers gave up 29 offensive boards to the Brooklyn Nets in Saturday’s loss.

“It’s effort really and that’s something we talked about in practice,” Carlisle said. “That’s something we’ve got to concentrate on. We need it to be a real wake-up call.”

Indiana lost that game to a depleted Brooklyn team 136-133 despite 35 points from Haliburton. Then the Pacers dropped a low-scoring game to Miami. In the next couple of weeks, Indiana has a rematch with Golden State, plus games against Cleveland, Boston and New Orleans. That stretch might indicate whether the Pacers will remain an intriguing playoff contender.

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