Don't sleep on Naptown: Pacers a key part of East race

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NEW YORK — Unless you’re in Indianapolis, you probably aren’t paying close attention to the Indiana Pacers. And Victor Oladipo is just fine with that.

“I really don’t care,” Oladipo said in an on-court interview Friday following the Pacers’ 121-106 win over the New York Knicks. “We’re just going to keep earning people’s respect and eventually they’ll wake up.”

It’s probably time to rise and shine. The Pacers (28-14) have the second-best defense in the NBA, one of the league’s best clutch players in Oladipo and the fourth-best net rating in the league.

What they don’t have? A household name, or a dramatic story line:

The Pacers? They’re humming along, quietly, with a .613 winning percentage since the start of last season.

And if you haven’t noticed that, it’s OK with them.

“It is what it is. We know we’re not a major market, and we know it’s not the greatest thing to talk about us, I guess you could say,” Oladipo says. “That’s fine with us.”

Unlike the other top teams in the East, Indiana hasn’t had any seismic changes over the past 18 months. Since the trade that sent Paul George to Oklahoma City and netted Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, the Pacers have mostly kept intact a core that won 48 games last season and took LeBron James and the Cavaliers to seven games in a first-round series. Indiana added Doug McDermott, Tyreke Evans and Kyle O’Quinn in free agency, and drafted Aaron Holiday in the first round, but made no other significant roster changes.

“I think the biggest thing for us was to continue to go with that flow that we had last year and bring it into this year,” said Thaddeus Young, one of the keys to Indiana’s stellar defense. “We have a lot of different integral parts to this team that we think can compose something special. We all know that.”

It all starts on defense for Indiana. The Pacers have the second-best defensive rating in the NBA, trailing only the Oklahoma City Thunder. That includes a three-game stretch of giving up at least 115 points with center Myles Turner sidelined because of a sore right shoulder.

They force turnovers (third-most steals per game in the league) and keep opponents off of the free throw line (lowest opponent attempts per game in the NBA). Again, continuity helps in those areas.

“We wanted to make sure we had guys who know the system and are integrated into the system,” Young said.

The biggest test for this Pacers team, of course, is yet to come.

They’ve enjoyed NBA’s the easiest schedule to date, according to ESPN’s BPI. Indiana has two games remaining against the 76ers, Bucks, Celtics, Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets. And though Indiana has wins against Milwaukee, Toronto, and Boston, it is an unsightly 4-10 against teams above .500.

“We can play with those teams,” Young says. “We still have a lot of time to change that.”

What they can’t change, however, is whether anyone outside of Indiana will pay attention. Not that they’d try to.

“We can control what we do on the floor,” coach Nate McMilllan said. “The press, the media is going to write about whatever interests them. Our focus is on ourselves.”



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