The Indiana Pacers have continually improved under Frank Vogel, advancing deeper into the playoffs each season. After adding more depth, they're focused on taking another step forward - which they hope leads to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Hosting the lowly Orlando Magic, who appear set for another rebuilding season, may help them get off to a quick start in Tuesday night's opener.
Indiana went 49-32 in the regular season and advanced to within one win of the NBA Finals before being eliminated by Miami. The Pacers were ousted by the Heat a round earlier in 2012, a year after Vogel led them to their first playoff berth in five years.
The success has stemmed largely from dominant defensive play that has been among the best in the league the past two seasons, during which time Indiana has limited opponents to 42.7 percent shooting and 92.4 points per game.
The re-signing of David West - who ranked third among East forwards in plus-minus - solidifies what could be another stingy team at its end of the floor.
Breaking through for a Finals appearance, however, will likely require better offensive play. Indiana hopes to achieve it after acquiring Luis Scola from Phoenix in exchange for a lottery-protected first-round pick, Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee. Scola has averaged 14.2 points and 7.5 rebounds over six seasons.
"I think when you trade away a future first-round pick and a couple of players like we did, I think it sends the message that it's not a go-for-it year but a go-for-it time for the next couple of years," Vogel said.
The Pacers haven't reached the Finals since their lone appearance in 2000.
"Last year, the expectations were high, but there's not a whole lot different this year - other than that we're bigger and stronger," he said.
Many expect even more from Paul George after he averaged a team-best 17.4 points and was named the league's most improved player in his third year.
They also added free agents Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson, who were among the top 25 in the league in 3-point shooting last season. Indiana's 34.7 percent mark from beyond the arc in 2012-13 ranked 22nd.
However, the Pacers likely will have to wait to realize their full offensive potential after Monday's announcement that Danny Granger would miss the first three weeks with a left calf injury. The team insists it's a precautionary measure, though there's likely some concern considering a knee injury limited him to five games last season.
"It's not terrible," said Granger, who had led Indiana in scoring for five straight seasons prior to 2012-13. "They (the doctors) just said to sit out until I didn't feel it."
Being without Granger may not prove too costly against Orlando, which finished a league-worst 20-62 in its first season without Dwight Howard.
For the Magic, all eyes will be on No. 2 overall pick Victor Oladipo as he makes his NBA debut in a building that's less than 60 miles away where he played three years for Indiana University. Oladipo comes off an All-American season but is being shifted to point guard after playing on the wing for the Hoosiers.
"I have higher expectations of myself, even higher than some people have of me,' Oladipo said. "I'm just going to play basketball at the end of the day. And I want to win just like everybody else."
Jameer Nelson, among the top 10 in the league with 7.4 assists per game last season, is expected to be the starter at point guard while serving as a mentor to Oladipo.
Third- and second-year players Tobias Harris and Maurice Harkless represent further promise for the Magic after both made major strides toward the end of last season. Harris averaged 17.3 points in his final 27 games while Harkless scored 13.4 over his final 30.
Indiana limited Orlando to 39.1 percent field-goal shooting and 85.3 points per game while taking two of three meetings last season.
George has averaged 21.5 points in his last four matchups with the Magic while hitting seven of 14 3-point attempts.
The Associated Press News Service
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