The Celtics take their most recent win streak into Indianapolis to face the Pacers on Wednesday night. When they get there, they will encounter not only the second best team in the Eastern Conference, but a budding juggernaut built to challenge the powers that be for years to come.
The Pacers have come a long way since a four-year playoff drought brought on by the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills back in the early stages of the 2004-2005 season. In just two years, they've gone from a below-.500, eighth seed scaring the crap out of the top seeded Bulls in a first round series, to forcing the eventual champion Heat to come from behind in last year's Eastern semis, to a fringe title contender.
And what's most scary is how they've built up to this point.
There is one, count 'em, one player on the Pacers' roster over the age of 30 and that's power forward/Celtics' shunner David West. Oh by the way, he's a free agent after this season.
There is a budding superstar in swingman Paul George and he's just 22. Indy's starting back court, George Hill and Lance Stephenson, are 26 and 22, respectively, and going up and down their roster, not one member of their current rotation is older than 27.
They've won seven of eight and 12 of 15 and over that stretch, all but one of those wins has been by double digits with three of them by 20-plus and two by more than 30. They're first in the NBA in defensive rating, give up fewer points per game than every team in the league except for Memphis and are 25-6 at home. They are the best rebounding team in the entire league. And all of this without Danny Granger, who has averaged more than 25 points per game two different times in his career and has only been their best player and the face of the franchise for the past five years.
The point of all this praise is that Wednesday night's game represents a tremendous measuring stick for the Celts. If they can go into Bankers Life Fieldhouse on the second night of a back-to-back and beat this team, then there's no reason to believe that they are not only in the argument regarding the best team in the east not located in Miami, but could potentially make another run come playoff time.
That may sound like a bit of a stretch considering we're still only in the beginning of March. But if there is such a thing as a statement game at this point in the season, Wednesday is one of them.
The Pacers are a terrible match up for the Celts given their proficiency on the glass and in the paint. But the one time these two teams met previously this season resulted in a blowout win for the C's at TD Garden. The Celts actually outrebounded Indiana that night and benefited from a combined 8-of-36 shooting night from West and George. The Pacers shot just 32 percent and their leading scorer was Tyler Hansbrough, neither of those facts ingredients for a winning recipe.
If the Celtics can play with energy and defensive intensity and find a way to score consistently against Indy's stingy defense, they can certainly win the game. That's easier said than done under the circumstances. This game falling on night two of a road back-to-back is a major disadvantage.
Still, don't count these Celts, now 12-4 since losing Rajon Rondo and doing it while turning over half of their roster, out. This one has all the makings of one of the games of the year.