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Emerging star giving boost to Pacers

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Finally, after a series of fits and starts, bad luck and downright bad play, the Indiana Pacers have their playoff act together.

Granted, they’re not in yet. But at the rate they’re going, it’s virtually a forgone conclusion.

Winners of 11 of their past 14 games and 17 of their past 24, the Pacers (21-14) have quietly become powerbrokers in the Eastern Conference. They have a half-game edge against Chicago for the Central Division lead and boast the third-best record in the East.

Moreover, they are coming off an 87-77 home win Tuesday against the defending NBA champion Miami Heat and suddenly look like the contenders they were projected to be coming off this past year’s spirited postseason run.

But they sure didn’t look like it during the first month of the season, closing November 2012 at 8-8 and squandering much of the fan goodwill stored up after this past season’s playoffs.

Much of the problem, of course, is Danny Granger. Or specifically, his unavailability. Out indefinitely, he has yet to play because of patellar tendinosis in his left knee.

But Granger’s absence wasn’t the only problem. Nor was it necessarily the biggest. The Pacers have, after all, won games in the past when he’s been out.

The bigger, and perhaps more puzzling, issues were the regression of a bench that was upgraded in the offseason and center Roy Hibbert’s offensive struggles after signing a $58 million contract. All that, and Paul George’s failure to evolve into the “go-to guy” that long has been predicted.

But those issues seem to be resolved.

Though still a work in progress, the bench is finally lending a meaningful hand. Tyler Hansbrough, Ian Mahinmi, D.J. Augustin and Gerald Green have played better of late, and each made solid contributions during the win against the Heat.

But clearly, nothing has done more to trigger the turnaround than George’s emergence as a budding All-Star.

His 29-point night against Miami was just the latest in a series of impressive outings by the versatile third-year small forward. He has reached double-figures in 16 of his past 17 games and averages 16.7 per game, tying him with teammate David West for team-high honors.

But scoring only tells part of the story.

Arguably the Pacers’ most complete player, even when Granger is healthy, the 6-foot-9, 215-pound George is their best defender and is making a case for NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

At the very least, he’s making a case to be in the conversation. Especially after helping limit LeBron James to 22 points Tuesday, six below his average.

“When you look at Paul, you can’t look at his stat line,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Paul George is becoming one of the best defensive players in the game. He took (last year’s playoff series against Miami) very, very personal.

“He’s really blossoming right in front of our eyes.”

Vogel isn’t the only one who’s noticed.

“The biggest difference (in the Pacers) I see is Paul George playing with a lot more confidence,” Heat star Dwyane Wade after the Pacers pounded Miami on the boards and allowed only three players — Wade, James and Chris Bosh — to reach double figures. “And they’ve got other guys like Lance Stephenson playing well, and bringing in D.J. Augustin is good for them.”

In total, it’s put the Pacers back on a winning path and back to the forefront of the East playoff race. They figure to be another leg up when/if Granger returns, which could be sometime in February.

For the time being, they have learned to win — and flourish — without him.

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