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Suspense apparently now part of strategy

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Pacers fans, welcome to your new normal.

As Indiana travels to Toronto tonight, looking to win twice in a row for the first time in almost three weeks, success is a grinding, gritty proposition.

Get used to it.

Long gone are the times when this team can coast through a first half and then turn on a third-quarter blitz against lesser opponents.

Ten losses in their past 18 starts have toppled Indiana from the NBA elite and created legitimate doubts about this team’s playoff prospects.

Why? That is the subject of much speculation — usually by those who don’t have a clue — such as the national writer this week who declared: “(Larry) Bird’s unnecessary puppeteering has left this team trapped in a web of knots, all to fix a problem that never even existed.”

Nice shot by someone paid to have opinions, not defend them.

The reality is that the Pacer puzzle is much more complex and much less capable of instant analysis. If it were that simple, we could all be NBA executives.

Instead, it is time to deal with this Indiana team for what it is now as it prepares for the playoffs. That is a team for which nothing is guaranteed, even when it plays its best.

Look no further than Wednesday’s home victory against lowly Detroit (27-48), where Indiana (53-23) appeared to cure its offensive ailments of late.

On Wednesday night the Pacers:

Topped 100 points for the first time in 10 games.

Put six players in double figures.

Had 24 assists and 27 bench points, both highs in the recent stretch.

Saw Paul George break out of his shooting funk with 27 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists.

“When we share the ball, everyone wins,” said center Roy Hibbert, who was the target of a particularly vicious flagrant foul in the second quarter but returned after halftime. “When we put all our starters in double figures, we’re hard to beat.”

And still, Indiana had to come from behind in the fourth quarter to pull out a 101-94 victory.

In stark terms, the Pacers can play their best and it still might not be good enough. That is quite a change for a team that rolled through February with the best record in the NBA.

What has changed?

Sure, there is the trade that brought Evan Turner and LaVoy Allen to the team in exchange for Danny Granger. There also is the signing of Andrew Bynum. Both of those moves have proved less than impactful.

Those are popular fodder, but they fail to explain the offensive woes of a starting unit that at times can’t seem to shoot straight.

George has been especially cold, hitting only 33 percent of his shots over the past 10 games. He is not alone, though, as big men Hibbert and David West have struggled to dominate inside. If Indiana cannot run an effective inside-out offense, its problems are compounded.

The Pacers cured that against the Pistons, but Toronto on the road presents a much larger challenge.

The Raptors (43-32) are tied for the third seed in the Eastern Conference behind Miami and Indiana.

“It is always tough playing in Toronto,” George said. “They are a team that gives us a hard time. They’ve improved big time, and they’re playing playoff basketball right now.”

The real opponent for the Pacers, though, in this closing six-game stretch leading to the playoffs, is themselves.

“We’ve got a lot of growing to do,” Hibbert said, leaving the details unspoken. “We’re not worried about the No. 1 seed. We’re just trying to get better and get ready for the playoffs.”

It’s not a situation that was expected given the dominant start to the season. But it is the reality for a Pacer team that has progressed from late-season slump to funk.

Great teams find a way to win, even when they shouldn’t. Indiana is not there, but it is making slow progress. “This is a game we would have lost last week,” George said of the Detroit win.

It wasn’t easy. Nothing will be as this team struggles to build off incremental progress.

Welcome to the new normal.

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