By Christmas, it was apparent this was no fluke.
By then, the Indiana Pacers had maintained the NBA’s best record for two months and proved beyond a doubt they were the league’s most consistent — if not its No. 1 — team.
Two months later, that hasn’t changed.
With 23 games to go, the Pacers are still the team everyone is chasing — in the East and the West. They are a league-leading 46-13 heading into tonight’s home game against visiting Golden State and have, with few brief exceptions, boasted the best record all season.
And when you stop and think about it, that’s pretty remarkable. Nothing projects championship contention like consistency. And being in this particular spotlight is unprecedented for the Pacers.
Sure, they’ve had terrific teams before. They’ve been to seven Eastern Conference Finals, won the East once and were runners-up to the Lakers in the 2000 NBA Finals.
But at no time, not even during those thrilling runs, were the Pacers ever labeled the favorites to win the title. Not even when Reggie Miller was at the top of his playoff game, which was most of the time, or even when they won the East, which made them fodder for Shaq and Kobe.
So this is different. Much different. The champion won’t be determined until June, but the Pacers are the team that most bets are on. Not all, but most.
For a change, many in the national media are billing the Pacers as the No. 1 contenders. And the buzz is not new. It began when they burst out of the gate 18-2 and clearly demonstrated they were built not just to win the East but the whole thing.
What’s more, they continue to show it.
The Pacers are 6-1 since the All-Star break and take a five-game win streak into tonight’s game against visiting Golden State. They are, as has been the case all season, the league’s best defensive team and are, as has been the case all season, it’s deepest.
Adding Evan Turner to the fold two weeks ago to strengthen what was already a strong bench almost seemed too good to be true. But somehow, Larry Bird managed to do it — for the comparatively low cost of Danny Granger, who was struggling to work his way back into a meaningful rotation role.
Couple that trade with the offseason acquisitions of Luis Scola and C.J. Watson, and recent free agent signing of Andrew Bynum, it’s hard to argue against Bird for the NBA’s Executive of the Year award. He won it in 2012 and deserves to win again.
Winning speaks for itself, and the Pacers — one of only four teams with a .700-plus winning percentage — have done plenty of that.
Has it always been pretty? No. Have there been a few “how did that happen?” losses? Yes. Do they blow out all opponents? No. Do they win most of the time? Yes.
Does anything else matter? No.
Clearly, the Pacers will have to be sharper in the playoffs to go as far as they expect to. Then again, that’s true for every team that is chasing them — including the Miami Heat (42-14), who are on a seven-game win streak and just a tick behind Indiana in the East.
Championships aren’t won until June, but the stage is set much sooner. The Pacers have been at the center of it almost the entire season, and they’ve positioned themselves to stay there.
Stay tuned. Miami is heating up, and the real fun is about to begin.