I've been writing for some time that the Pacers have a pretty soft schedule to end the year, and they've done what they were supposed to with it so far. There are nine games left in the season, and they break down like this: 2 (home-and-home) against Cleveland, 2 (home-and-home) against Milwaukee, host Minnesota, to Philadelphia, then finish out hosting Detroit and Chicago.
Only Philly and Chicago have winning records in that stretch. Milwaukee is only one game under, Philly is only two games over. Philly has also been in a bit of a freefall as of late. The Pacers really ought to win all those games except maybe Chicago. And, you know, they do get the Bulls at home. I'm not going to be a bit surprised if the Pacers can pull that one out. They won't get beat up like they did last time in Chicago.*
*And, it should be noted, it was really just an embarrassing third quarter in that game.
The bad news is the Pacers need those games, because the grip on third place is a little more tenuous than I realized. I forgot the only reason Boston is sitting in fourth is because they're leading a weak division. At the moment, the Pacers are a game up on both Orlando and Atlanta. So, now I have a reason to pay attention to other games. I (most likely) won't actually watch them, but I will be doing some scoreboard watching. Orlando plays tonight at Washington, which probably means the lead will be back to a half game.
So, now that my reporting is out of the way, let's get into some opinion. ESPN (and, to a lesser degree, Sports Illustrated) are really missing the boat on this Pacer team. They cover the ever-living shit out of the Heat, and I'm sure it draws eyeballs. But, go ask most fans, casual or not. It's mostly negative publicity. People did (and do) not like how LeBron left Cleveland to chase a ring with Dwyane Wade.* But the team is compelling, just like a good heel in wrestling is compelling.
*Side note: I really with Wad's mom knew how to spell Dwayne.
You know what else should be compelling, if ESPN would cover it the same way? The Heat's antithesis. And more precisely, the Heat's antithesis that still wins games. You don't have to squint too hard to see that in the Pacers. Miami has the "Big Three."* The Pacers star is. . .Danny Granger? Roy Hibbert? Paul George? David West? The answer is "yes," because they all take their turns. I linked to it the other day, but it's worth mentioning again in this context. Here's SI's take on the Pacers from a month ago or so.
*Though it's pretty clearly more like the the "Big Two and a Half." Adding "Men" to the end of that designation is totally optional, depending on your taste for comedy.
In case you don't have time to read all that, here is the opening quote: "The Pacers' superstar goes by many names, and there is nothing he cannot do. He rebounds and defends. He Plays close to the floor and above the rim. He posts up and passes. he spots up and slashes. He's been humbled too often to brag. He has a wingspan of something like 50 feet, his uniform number reads like a long-distance call to Poland, and he takes up more than half of the locker because he consists of more than half the team."
It's not too hard to read between the lines on that one. The Pacers have no real superstar, but they have the absolute definition of a team. And, yes, look at the standings. There they are, proudly sitting in third in the conference. Having beaten the top two teams soundly on occasion. Sure, they've gotten beaten soundly by them on occasion, too, but that will happen. The fact of the matter is, though, they are not too far off from the level of a Chicago or Miami. And I do think the Pacers are a bad match up for Chicago, because Derrick Rose doesn't like how Darren Collison moves without the ball and will stick with him on defense.
But it's not as fun to make up the highlights when there's no single focal point of the team. Plus, the Pacers have only just recently gotten good. ESPN will have to take notice, though. Watch for the Pacers to make some noise in the playoffs, more than the Celtics, who are still a golden child for ESPN. I'm sure their trio (maybe quartet) of starts and their location makes them more bankable to Connecticut-based ESPN, but we'll see whose talent wins out in the end.