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Pacers soar under radar without star

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Flashy, they’re not. Star-powered, not exactly. Nationally heralded, hardly.

But no matter.

Stealthily but steadily, the Indiana Pacers have become contenders. Not just to make the playoffs, but to go in as a No. 1 seed.

That’s how well they’re playing.

Heading into Wednesday night’s game at Philadelphia, their third in three nights, the Pacers were:

A half-game ahead of Chicago for the Central Division lead.

Three games behind Miami for the Eastern Conference lead.

Winners of 15 straight at home.

On a four-game winning streak.

Positioned to move higher up the East standings with 11 of their next 15 games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse

Surprised? If you’re just now tuning in, you probably are.

And you’re probably not alone.

Any number of distractions have kept eyes off the Pacers — not the least of which was their disappointing start back in November, which was about the time the Colts captivated the city and the NFL with their storybook season.

Then along came IU basketball. And Butler. And the NFL playoffs. And the Super Bowl.

Lost in the shadow of it all were the Pacers. They were 5-7 on Nov. 19. They were without their best player. Their new and improved bench was anything but. And the goodwill they’d built up from the previous season’s thrilling playoff ride was gone.

But that was then. This is now.

Early season struggles clearly in their wake, the Pacers are not only winning, talk of a No. 1 seed is becoming something more than talk. Within the past week, they’ve strengthened their argument with victories against Miami and Chicago. They are 20-3 at home and play 19 of their final 33 games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

That stretch easily could pave the way to the top seed if they continue to protect their home court and don’t break down on the road.

But here’s the intriguing and amazing part: The Pacers have accomplished everything without their best player.

Danny Granger has yet to play in the regular season with patellar tendinosis in his left knee, an unexpected blow that took the Pacers weeks to adjust to. But Granger was recently cleared for full-contact practice, and he is expected to return sometime before the Feb. 15 All-Star break.

The timing couldn’t be better.

Yes, the Pacers have thrived with Paul George, David West and George Hill spearheading the offense. But no, Granger’s return won’t — or shouldn’t — disrupt rhythm. Apart from providing obvious scoring, rebounding and defensive boosts, his return should strengthen the bench, which is where Lance Stephenson will return.

Stephenson has played especially well of late and will fortify a reserve unit that is still a work in progress but starting to come together. Offseason acquisitions Ian Mahinmi and D.J. Augustin have grown more comfortable in their roles; Tyler Hansbrough has provided more quality minutes than he did at the beginning of the season; and Orlando Johnson and Sam Young have filled in capably in spot situations.

With 33 games to go, the ball is now in the Pacers’ court with regard to their postseason destiny. Two months ago, the playoffs weren’t a certainty. Today, the only question is seeding. Will it be No. 3? No. 2? No. 1?

If you’ve been paying attention, stay tuned. If you haven’t, tune in.

The show is worth watching.

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