Bucks-Pacers Preview

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 8-0
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.”

Relying on a perfect mix of productivity, stability and
camaraderie, the league’s last unbeaten team hosts the short-handed
and struggling Milwaukee Bucks on Friday night.

Four of Indiana’s five starters are averaging in 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 first NBA 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.”

On Monday, Indiana completed a five-game sweep in seven days,
something Vogel noted he had never before experienced. The Pacers
play another back-to-back this weekend, following Friday’s game
with Saturday’s road matchup against Chicago and a hobbled Derrick
Rose (hamstring).

The quick start, the best in franchise history, has already
given the Pacers a leg up. They lead the 3-3 Bulls, 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 said.

While Indiana has been powered by its depth, the banged-up Bucks
(2-5) dropped their third straight Wednesday, 94-91 at Orlando.
Milwaukee played the entire game without injured starters Brandon
Knight and Zaza Pachulia as well as top reserve Gary Neal, and it
played the last two minutes without starter Caron Butler, who
injured his shoulder and didn’t return after scoring 20 points.

”We did wear down, you could tell,” coach Larry Drew said.
”When you’re missing seven guys, and you come in and give that
kind of effort, me as a coach, I have to be grateful. As
short-handed as we were, we still put ourselves in great position.
We just didn’t make plays down the stretch.”

O.J. Mayo led the Bucks with 25 points, while Khris Middleton
added 19 and eight rebounds.

Indiana has won seven of the past nine meetings with Milwaukee.
The Pacers took the last two in 2012-13, winning the latest 102-78
on March 22 after a 95-80 victory Jan. 5.