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Pacers start to show signs of life, even without star

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Give the Indiana Pacers credit. They have a survival instinct, after all.

Granted, one game above .500 isn’t what we — or they — envisioned heading into the season. But in light of circumstances, it’s a whole lot better than where they seemed to be going.

Which was down the drain. In a hurry.

A season filled with promise started as a colossal disappointment. First came the announcement Danny Granger would not be ready to play. Then came the jolt the Pacers weren’t ready to play without him.

Looking lost and confused, the Pacers started 4-7. During a particularly sorry stretch in early November, they lost five of six games and, along with them, much of the fan capital they banked during last year’s playoff run.

In a flash, the anticipation of bigger and better things was gone. A team that returned every starter and, perhaps more importantly, added critical pieces to the bench had taken backward steps.

True, sailing conditions weren’t going to be idyllic without Granger. But no one forecast an ongoing gale that would render the otherwise well-equipped Pacers helpless.

Yet that’s how they’ve played.

Until now.

Though too early to declare the worst is over, the Pacers are showing signs of moving forward while their scoring leader recovers from a knee issue that is expected to sideline him for at least another two months.

Recent results provide the clearest evidence.

Winners of six of their past eight games, they are above .500 for the first time since being 2-1 on Nov. 3. They take a two-game winning streak into tonight’s home game against Denver and are tied with Chicago for the Central Division lead — a tie they helped forge with Tuesday’s 80-76 win at the United Center.

So, what’s different today from a month ago? Apart from performance, nothing. The Pacers have the same personnel but are starting to get desired results, or at least, some of the desired results.

Roy Hibbert, the ink on his new $58 million contract barely dry, continues to underachieve in staggering fashion. The new and improved bench plays look like it only in spurts. And Paul George has a maddening propensity for mixing 30-point nights with regrettable clunkers.

But collectively, the Pacers are showing signs of overcoming the obstacles — thanks largely to the season-long consistency of David West and George Hill and George’s incremental emergence as a guy who can reel in the slack for Granger.

Even the bench has been better of late. Take Wednesday’s 99-92 win against Portland, for example.

Despite falling behind by double digits in the first half, the Pacers remained poised and let their leaders — West, Hill and George — lead the way. They also got the type of lift from their bench they anticipated when they acquired Gerald Green, Ian Mahinmi and D.J. Augustin in the offseason to complement Tyler Hansbrough.

George, who scored 34 points the previous night in Chicago, came back with 22. Hill had 18, and West had 16. Off the bench, Mahinmi had 12, and Hansbrough had 10. Green had eight points, two assists and two blocked shots, and Augustin contributed four assists and a steal.

Though none of the above was All-Star eye-popping, it was collectively efficient. And it paralleled recent efforts that have started to reverse the Pacers’ fortunes.

How long can they keep it up, or whether they are truly turning a corner toward being competitive, remains to be seen. But signs are encouraging, and a winning record in early December beats the alternative.

Until recently, they were on a fast path to the alternative.

Rick Morwick is sports editor for the Daily Journal. Send comments to rmorwick@dailyjournal.net.

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