Nets-Pacers Preview

The Associated Press

Even after the Indiana Pacers pushed the eventual NBA champions in the playoffs last season, few may have expected them - without Danny Granger - to finish ahead of a Brooklyn Nets team that made strong offseason moves.

That can officially become reality Friday night when Indiana looks to clinch the third seed in the Eastern Conference with a victory over visiting Brooklyn.

Indiana had Miami on the ropes in the 2012 East semifinals before bowing out in six games, and it appeared to be one of the biggest threats to the Heat coming into 2012-13.

Then the news came just before the season that the Pacers wouldn't have Granger, their leading scorer the last five years, for at least the first three months because of a knee injury.

Despite Granger playing only five games before opting for surgery, Indiana (49-29) won its first Central Division title since 2003-04 behind All-Star Paul George, who scored 14 points to help the Pacers overcome a 20-point deficit in a 99-94 win over Cleveland on Tuesday.

Coach Frank Vogel's ejection in the third quarter seemed to spark his team. The Pacers were coming off two embarrassing defeats, 97-75 to Oklahoma City last Friday and 104-85 at Washington the following night.

George Hill scored a team-high 27 points to aid the comeback Tuesday.

''We couldn't have three blowouts in a row. We want to close the season out on a good foot,'' George said. ''When coach went out, we really had to pull it together. We knew the fourth quarter is the way we play. We were really struggling."

Brooklyn also is likely headed toward home-court advantage in the first round, one of many goals set by the organization after re-signing Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace, Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries and trading for Joe Johnson.

Williams has been the catalyst as the fourth-place Nets (46-32) have won three straight. He scored 29 points and added 12 assists in a 101-93 win at Boston on Wednesday.

The point guard has averaged 25.5 points and 54.8 percent shooting in his last four games, considerably better than his season numbers of 18.7 and 43.9.

''We say it every game - he's playing like one of, if not the, elite point guards in the league,'' interim coach P.J. Carlesimo said.

With Johnson still not 100 percent recovered from a strained quadriceps and the team having lost Wallace to a left heel contusion Wednesday, Williams has had to step up his game as the Nets prepare to make their first postseason appearance since 2006-07.

''Whenever two (people are covering) the ball, he makes the right play," reserve Jerry Stackhouse said of Williams. "I think once he mixes it up, it's like pick your poison."

Williams has averaged 28.8 points in his last four games versus the Pacers, though he sat out an 89-84 overtime victory in the most recent meeting Feb. 11. Lopez finished with 25 points and Reggie Evans added 22 rebounds to help overcome 22 points from Hill.

Wallace missed a 97-86 win over Indiana on Jan. 13 because of bruised ribs, and it's uncertain if his injured heel will keep him out of this contest.

Brooklyn has held Indiana to an average of 84.7 points while winning the last three matchups following a 10-game losing streak in the series.