By MICHAEL MAROT
INDIANAPOLIS — When Paul George looked up at the scoreboard Monday night and realized Lance Stephenson was closing in on a triple-double, he got right to work.
As George went on another scoring binge to help the Pacers pull away from Memphis, he wanted Stephenson to share the spotlight. So George quickly made a 20-foot jumper with 10:56 left in the game, giving Stephenson his 10th assist, then jogged over to his teammate and gave him a low-five.
It’s hardly an unprecedented sight around the NBA, but in a league that has been built on big names, individual numbers and 1-on-1 matchups, George’s reaction was emblematic of what the Pacers have become — a team that celebrates everyone’s accomplishments.
“I think it’s different from most of the teams I’ve been around, other than the last two or three years,” said coach Frank Vogel, who has spent 17 seasons working in the NBA. “I think this is the most selfless team I’ve been part of.”
What the NBA’s last unbeaten team has cobbled together is a perfect mix of productivity, stability and camaraderie.
Four of Indiana’s five starters are averaging double figures, led by George (24.9 points) and Stephenson (14.3). Fans have already been serenading George with chants of “MVP! MVP!”, and Stephenson has made no secret he wants to become the next Indiana player to earn the league’s Most Improved Player Award. George won it last season.
Center Roy Hibbert is on the cusp of joining the double-digit club, averaging 9.9 points, but he’s more excited about leading NBA in blocks (4.4). His goal is to win the league’s Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Power forward David West, Indiana’s inspirational leader, might have gotten more money in free agency last summer but decided to stick around to make a title run with his pals. And guard George Hill is continuing to develop his ball-handling skills as he becomes a more consistent scorer.
Add all of that to a vastly improved bench that is only going to get deeper when Danny Granger returns from a strained left calf, perhaps as early as next week, plus the league’s No. 1 defense, and it’s obvious why the Pacers could become the NBA’s first team to go 9-0 since the 2002-03 Mavericks, according to STATS. They play together.
“I think we just built that (chemistry) over the years,” George said Wednesday following a rare early season practice. “I think we always wanted to pull for one another before, but we didn’t know how to do it. As the years went on and our core stayed together, it’s helped. Now, when guys come in, they understand how tight we are and how they will fit in.”
It’s no fluke.
When Larry Bird started transforming the Pacers from playoff outsiders into title hopefuls, he wanted to build around a group of players who worked relentlessly at improving. He wanted guys who were comfortable filling roles and who could embrace a style that would appeal to Indiana’s purist basketball fans. Most of all, he wanted guys who were simply committed to doing whatever it took to win.
The results have been impressive.
After falling to Miami in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals, the Pacers returned this season on a bold mission to dethrone the two-time defending champs.
So far, so good.
On Monday, Indiana completed a five-game sweep in seven days, something Vogel noted he had never before experienced. The Pacers return to action again this weekend with another back-to-back — Friday at home against short-handed Milwaukee and Saturday at Chicago against a hobbled Derrick Rose (hamstring).
The quick start, the best in franchise history, has already given the Pacers a leg up. They lead the Bulls (3-3), who they beat last week, by four games and have a three-game cushion over the Heat.
Those numbers don’t mean much to these Pacers.
“We’re really not playing for the streak or being undefeated,” George said. “We just want to win every night.”
Hibbert doesn’t believe Indiana’s approach is all that different from the rest of the NBA. He points out that the Heat’s trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh likes to celebrate when others play well and that other teams do the same thing.
The Pacers have just taken it to a different level.
“We want to see our teammates do well, we want them to eat,” Hibbert explained.
And Indiana is hungry to do even more.
“We talk about it every day, at every film session,” Vogel said. “We make sure that guys are playing for each other. We always say that when you have the basketball, you’ve got to think pass and when you don’t have the basketball, you’ve got to think score. It’s negotiating through screens and playing defense and winning, together.”
Note: Vogel said Granger worked out Tuesday but was held out of practice Wednesday because of soreness in his left calf. Neither Granger nor Vogel were concerned that it was a setback. Vogel said he would not completely rule Granger out of this weekend’s games, though Granger said he hoped to return to game action next week.