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Pacers a dark-horse in Eastern Conference

The Indiana Pacers were an afterthought heading into this season after losing Paul George to a gruesome leg injury and Lance Stephenson to free agency. Other injuries at the beginning of the year, including several to George Hill, didn’t help matters, and the Pacers were often tough to watch because of a lack of offense.

Hill finally returned at the tail end of January, but Indiana sat at just 17-32 heading into February. However, February was when things began to turn around.

The Pacers went 7-2 in February on the strength of their typically strong defense and a vastly improved offense. Hill has played a big role in that, as has Rodney Stuckey, who Indiana picked up on a minimum contract in the offseason. Stuckey averaged 15.9 points and 3.7 assists while shooting 53.8 percent overall and 48.0 percent in February, and his strong play has continued into March. The 28-year-old is averaging 18.4 points, 5.0 boards and 4.4 assists in March, and he just put up 34 points, seven assists and six rebounds in a blowout victory over the Orlando Magic.

Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports

Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports

The victory over the Magic was the sixth straight for the Pacers, and Indiana now has a record of 29-34. So if you’re counting, that’s 12 wins in their last 14 games, which has the Pacers as the seventh-seed in the Eastern Conference.

Indiana could give a top seed in the East fits with its defense and improved offense, and don’t forget that George could still return this season. George was initially hoping to return to the court this weekend, and while that’s not going to happen, he could be back very soon.

It would be foolish to expect too much from George after such a terrible injury, but he could still provide a boost. Even if he’s playing a small role, he could make an impact on both ends of the floor if he can get over the rust quickly. But again, it would behoove the Pacers to play it safe with him and not push him too hard.

Even if George doesn’t come back or he comes back and plays poorly, Indiana will be dangerous. I’ve already mentioned Hill and Stuckey’s impact, and I haven’t even talked about the stellar frontcourt of Roy Hibbert and David West. Hibbert remains a thoroughly mediocre offensive player, but he also remains a dominant force in the middle on defense. West is still his solid self.

The Pacers also have strong depth, and a head coach in Frank Vogel who utilizes that depth well and preaches defense. Even if the offense goes into a rut, the defense is usually there to keep them in games, as evidenced by a 35-26-2 record against the spread, per VegasInsider.com. Vogel deserves a ton of credit for coaching up this group, and they appear to be dangerous heading into the postseason.

Interestingly enough, the Pacers have 50/1 odds to win the title, per Bovada, the same odds as the Toronto Raptors and better odds than the Washington Wizards.

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