Basketball

Improved Pacers looking to beat Heat, take next step to NBA finals

InterAKTV/Justin Gener

InterAKTV/Justin Gener

MANILA – Paul George, one of US pro basketball’s breakout stars last season, feels the Indiana Pacers are now tougher, healthier and wiser as they take a second consecutive shot at reaching the NBA finals.

After a heartbreak Game Seven Eastern Conference finals loss to eventual repeat NBA champions LeBron James and the Miami Heat, George signed a fat contract extension and Indiana retooled a team expected to go deep into the playoffs again.

“I’m someone not satisfied being where I’m at and I always want to climb to a higher and higher level,” the 23-year-old told reporters in the Philippine capital before a pre-season game Thursday against the Houston Rockets.

The Pacers, who last reached the National Basketball Association finals in 2001, now have former all-star swingman Danny Granger back after he sat out most of 2012 with a knee injury.

“Danny is another leader for us. He’s another playmaker, he’s another shotmaker for us. He’s someone that we missed. He’s a guy that in his career has averaged 20 points and been an all-star. It takes a lot of pressure off of myself,” George said.

The team also traded for Argentine Luis Scola, a former Rocket who has won an Olympic gold medal and a world championship, to spell two-time All-Star power forward David West.

“Having Luis is huge. He’s a playmaker at the power forward position behind David West and we all know how great David West is,” said George.

Pushing the Heat all the way in June was a good “confidence-booster”, he said, adding it also pointed Indiana to the things that needed improvement.

“We changed up our bench, a lot of guys came back better, came back with much more of a focus coming into this season, and so I think we addressed the problems from last year.”

Head coach Frank Vogel said the Pacers’ off-season trades should help his young and talented team take the next step.

“We’re such a young team. Paul George and Lance Stephenson were our starting wings playing 40 minutes a game last year at 22, 23 years (old), so hopefully with a little more experience we’ll be a little better at that,” Vogel said.

He added: “We really have to grow, gain from the experience we took last year, and try to take that next step.”

Asked to rate his team’s prospects of reaching the NBA championship this year he said: “I’m not sure what the (Las) Vegas odds are, but I know that our guys believe in it, and that’s all that really matters for us.”

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