Opponent recon: Pacers firing on all cylinders, looking elite

USA TODAY Sports

Through the first week of the season, the Pacers are staking their claim as contenders in the Eastern Conference.

Projected starters: George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert

We all know the Pacers. They were offseason darlings after taking the Heat to seven games, nearly earning a spot in the NBA Finals despite not breaking 50 wins during the regular season. They always had one of the best defenses in the league, led by George and Hibbert. But when they elevated their offensive game in the playoffs, Indiana became an elite team.

They enhanced their depth, but their jump to the top tier in the league would depend on their frontline talent. The early results this season have been impressive as they are the last unbeaten team in the league. Visit SB Nation's Indy Cornrows for more stories.

Rising: Lance Stephenson. Hibbert and George have gotten their much deserved attention so far this season, but Stephenson has been flying under the radar with a fantastic start, putting up 19 points per game on 60% shooting (including 64% from three), 6.7 rebounds, and 4 assists. It's not often that you see a guy legitimately catapult from a few strong playoff performances, but Stephenson may do just that. At this point he's firmly entrenched in the starting lineup for the Pacers - which could make for an interesting conversation when his contract expires at the end of the year.

Not so much: Danny Granger. He's still not around. Pretty much everything else is going right for Indiana - they're deep, talented, and they have their core competency defined and excelled. But Granger is a weapon that could actually make them favorites in the East, even over Miami and Chicago. Grantland wrote a piece on how Granger fits in to the team's short-term and long-term future, which is very much worth reading. In typical Grantland style, it's 3,000 words.

How do they do it: Here's Indy Cornrows' look at it from last year. It essentially comes down to they're really big and long. But it's more than that. They do a great job of funneling teams into areas where their size and length are most effective. Roy Hibbert's numbers are the best example of that. He's the early frontrunner for the guy who should be Defensive Player of the Year with his 4.7 blocks per game and incredible 12.1 percent block rate. According to SportVU they've been able to force nine shots per game at the rim against Hibbert, where opponents are shooting 22 percent.

Don't let him beat you: Paul George, of course. Early this season, he's been the clear go-to guy for the Pacers, particularly down the stretch. As Indy Cornrows puts it:

Looking at Indiana in the final minute of quarters, George has been asked to perform as though he is a bona fide offensive superstar. The Pacers have had 17 half court possessions in the final minute of quarters this year. (This excludes the fourth quarter against Orlando and Cleveland, as both games were in hand by then, and the possessions against New Orleans that were immediate fouls by the Pelicans.) In those 17 possessions, George has touched the ball 20 different times and at least once on every possession.

Be sure to check out Sean Corp's game preview here.

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