‘Every writer put us 15th in the East and 30th in the NBA’: The secret to Pacers success

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Pacers are so used to it now that it almost feels routine.

The game starts and they take a few minutes to find their footing. The Pacers find that either their shots aren't getting kind rolls or their opponents are finding it just a little too easy for their offense to operate. The gap in score widens to double figures and beyond, and before halftime there's a significant hole they need to dig out of.

And then they find a way. They step up their defensive pressure or they get to the rim more or they start hitting 3s and the deficit dissolves then the gap widens on their side of the ledger. And suddenly they're not just leading but cruising to victories no one would have expected when the season began and they were supposed to finish at the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

It happened again Friday night when the Pacers fell behind by 12 in the first quarter to a Brooklyn Nets team that, for all of its nationally-documented dysfunction, still employs two of the most talented basketball players the world has ever known. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving combined to score 15 points in the first quarter to help the Nets shoot 62.5% in the period, giving them a 35-23 lead.

But the Pacers chipped away and chipped away because they've been behind too many times to be afraid of that anymore; when the fourth quarter arrived they were down by just six. And then they started the fourth with an 11-2 blitz that turned into a 20-4 run. It didn't matter that Durant went nuclear and scored 20 of his 36 in the fourth quarter because the Pacers built a big cushion in a small window and grabbed an improbable 128-117 win.

"It's just an understanding of, no matter what we're down, we know we've been here before," point guard Tyrese Haliburton said. "We've figured it out before. We understand that 10, 15, 20 points in the NBA is nothing. It's a couple of possessions, a couple stops. Basketball is a game of runs, so you go on a little run, next thing you know you're back in the game and it comes down to making or missing shots. The more that we're doing this, the better you feel in those opportunities. Nobody's panicking."

In this young season, the Pacers have already been in those situations a lot. They've won seven games in which they've trailed by as many as 10 points. They won five such games all of last season. The comebacks represent more than half of their total wins, as they currently stand 11-7 with wins in six of their last seven games and 10 of 13 after a 1-4 start.

Thanks to those comeback wins, the Pacers head into a seven-game, 11-day West Coast road trip that begins Sunday in Los Angeles against the Clippers standing alone in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, just a half-game behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for third.

"We like to call it being battle-tested," center Myles Turner said. "It's very important in the beginning of the season to have situations like that as you're going toward the end of the season or into the playoffs and you're trying to make that run. Once you get into the playoffs, there's going to be situations like that where you're down against a raucous crowd. You have to be able go keep composure and keep going. You have to build those habits now."

"Playoffs" is a word the Pacers can use out loud now in press conferences without the suggestion coming off as absurd. It's still November and there's plenty of time for the season to go sideways, plus there will incentives for the front office to move players, including Turner, with his expiring contract to set the franchise up better for the future, which could obviously upset the current dynamic.

But the Pacers' ability to stay together and find a way to win games that they trail speaks to a quality of chemistry that is uncommon in a professional locker room, particularly one that was the 10th youngest in the league when the season started with an average age of just over 25 years old. The Pacers haven't yet sniffed postseason play together but they've swiftly developed collective faith in themselves and their teammates. That can turn into wins that change some calculations

"This team's superpower is their connectivity," Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. "They love one another. They compete hard against each other, but they really support each other. There's a joy that is really special. We've got to fight to keep that. This kind of vibe with an NBA team doesn't happen every day. You have to fight to preserve it."

The connectivity comes in large part because the Pacers have a budding superstar whose game and personality are built to connect. Friday night, Haliburton had one of his most spectacular nights of the young season, scoring 21 points dishing off 15 assists, grabbing six rebounds and four steals and doing it all without committing a single turnover. He has posted double-figure assists in 13 of his 18 games this season, and his 11.1 per game not only lead the NBA but give him a two-per-game lead over Atlanta's Trae Young, who is second with 9.1.

On the floor, he keeps everyone engaged, rewarding big men who run the floor, finding open shooters in corners, putting rookie sensation Bennedict Mathurin in position to go off and also finding ways to get himself enough opportunities to average 19.1 points per game himself. Off the floor, he's a natural connector as well, with an easy-going approachability that suggests he's anything but a superstar and a maturity and league-wariness that suggests he's much older than 22 and has been in the league much longer than three years.

"As he’s come into this situation late January, early February whatever it was last year, he immediately saw the opportunity to be the leader of a franchise," Carlisle said. "He never looked at if it was just his thing just by virtue of being here. He knew he had to do the right things, put the work in, not skip steps. He's done everything we could have asked. ... Haliburton has been a godsend for this franchise."

But it isn't just him. Veterans and rookies have blended together naturally and roles have developed without having to be defined. They make each other laugh in the locker room and spend time together away from it.

"It's just our vibe," said James Johnson, a 35-year-old, 14th-year veteran playing with his 10th NBA team who Carlisle constantly praises for his veteran presence. "We're not fake-liking each other. I really think that we respect each other's work ethic, honestly. We understand how hard we all go and what it took for us to get here. ... And we're vulnerable enough to tell someone else when they're wrong and we hold each other accountable. That's just a whole different level of relationship."

And they're also collectively driven by the fact that they were expected to spend this season tanking for a top draft pick.

"There's a lot of authentic people in this room," Haliburton said. "And a lot of people who feel like we have something to prove. We don't come with a lot of egos. We're a lot of young guys who feel like we have a lot to prove to ourselves and others and understanding the best way for us to prove anything is to win. And obviously guys have a chip on our shoulder. Every major writer in America, it feels like, put us 15th in the East and 30th in the NBA."

Barring a total dismantling of the roster it seems hard to imagine them ending up there now, because almost every time they seem to be on the brink of being run out of the building, they find a way.

"Guys are understanding not to panic," Haliburton said. "Let's just come together. It's time to get closer. Understand this is what we have to do. Let's capitalize. Let's do it."

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Pacers vs. Nets: Pacers keep finding ways to rally