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 one-on-one 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 the 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 points 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.