What a difference a year makes. This time last season, the Indiana Pacers were just beginning their new era of basketball following the Paul George trade, an era nearly everyone -- myself included -- believed would involve years of rebuilding and countless losses. Our own SportsLine projection system pegged them for 30.6 wins, while models from both FiveThirtyEight and ESPN had them at 32. No one was talking playoffs, even in the Eastern Conference, and yet there they were, holding a second-half lead in Game 7 of their first-round series against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They lost that game, but the message was clear. There will be no rebuilding in Indianapolis; this Pacers team is legit.
"Last year they were under the radar and this year we have a target on our back," free agent signing Doug McDermott explained to CBS Sports after their loss to the Bucks last week. "It's a challenge for us, but we put in work every day so we're ready every time we step on the floor. We got 80 more games, so we can't hang our heads after one loss. We just gotta realize that people know who we are now."
People certainly know who the Pacers are now. That includes the fans, media and especially other teams.
"I think they've established an identity with how hard they play," Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said, as if to echo McDermott's point. "Defensively, they get into you and make things difficult. I think they really play well together on both ends. They're well-coached, really hard-playing and unselfish. They have a lot of good qualities."
Those good qualities led the Pacers to the brink of the second round last season, and could lead them even further this campaign. Not only has Victor Oladipo emerged as a bonafide All-Star and leader, but they returned seven of their top eight scorers from last season, while adding Tyreke Evans, McDermott and Kyle O'Quinn in the offseason. They may not have the same top-level talent as some other teams, but you'd struggle to find a roster as deep as the one they have in Indiana.
Off to a 2-1 start, albeit with wins over the Grizzlies and Nets, the Pacers are top-seven in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Only the Toronto Raptors are even in the top-10 in both categories.
While talent, togetherness and hard work may have helped the Pacers surprise people last season, those qualities and their bolstered squad have created high expectations this time around. Everyone believes they'll make the playoffs, and they should be in the mix to earn homecourt advantage in the first round. And though it's good to get the respect you deserve, it also comes with added pressure and expectations.
Which is why the Pacers are focused on blocking out all outside noise and focusing their attention internally. That may sound cliche, but it was a tactic that worked well for the Pacers when they were doubted last season, and one they believe can help them avoid getting gassed up by the praise this season.
"We don't worry what outsiders say," Myles Turner told CBS Sports in the visiting locker room prior to Friday night's game at the brand new Fiserv Forum. "That was our biggest mantra last year, and that's how we gotta keep it. It's a brand new season and yeah, we had success last season, but we still got 81 games to go from this point, so we gotta lock in, focus and stick to our own team goals."
Veteran forward Thaddeus Young concurred afterward. "We just gotta play," Young said. "Not listen to all the outside noise, just focus in, lock-in and play with a chip on our shoulders like we did last year."
As for what those goals are, Young added, "Our goal is just to win as many games as possible, get back to the playoffs and potentially get out of the first round."
That certainly sounds reasonable, but Victor Oladipo has his sights set even higher. When asked about maintaining the same passion and drive he had last season when he was out to prove people wrong, the All-Star guard didn't mince words.
"Honestly, I mean, last year was great, but what did I really accomplish? I didn't really win. We lost, and I gotta keep getting better. My goal is to win a championship, that's my focus," Oladipo told CBS Sports. "I gotta keep getting better so I can do whatever I can to help my team win and be good enough to win a championship. That's what I'm focused on is getting better. And I remain hungry because I had humble beginnings. I ain't done nothing yet, I gotta keep getting better."
A championship may be a lofty goal this season, but that attitude is exactly why the Pacers proved everyone wrong last season, and why they should prove everyone right this season.