Of the NBA's small-market teams, the Pacers have rebuilt the right way. Through the draft, they've picked gritty and fearless players like Danny Granger and Paul George to capture the Indiana-versus-the-world identity that goes back to the Reggie Miller days against the New York Knicks.
Only now, it's the big-city Miami Heat led by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade who the Pacers must topple. And even without Granger on the court because of a knee injury, the 29-year-old still links Indiana to the past. He was a rookie in 2005-06, the last season the Pacers made the playoffs before their current three-year streak of postseason appearances. Back then, it was the irritable Jermaine O'Neal, Stephen Jackson and Austin Croshere setting the tone for the Pacers.
But back to Granger: The veteran's imprint on this team is very real. Not only are he and George tight-knit, but George has taken another large step forward this season with Granger sidelined. As the fourth option last year in terms of field goals attempted per game, George has leaped to the first option for Frank Vogel's team in 2012-13.
The growth of the third-year forward parallels the growth of Vogel as well. After a four-year playoff drought from 2007-2010, Indiana returned to postseason play in 2010-11 and after Vogel took over for Jim O'Brien. They only took one game out of five against the Chicago Bulls and MVP Derrick Rose in a single 2010-11 playoff series, but since have taken mighty steps forward.
Last season, Indiana dropped the first game of its first-round series to a disarrayed roster out of Orlando, then ran off four straight. That set up a game against the eventual champion Miami Heat.
It was then that Granger taught George, Roy Hibbert and George Hill how to fight the Heat with the rugged attitude that Croshere and O'Neal had learned from Miller. Arguably, the Pacers were the most rebellious of any opponent that Miami's showtime style crushed en route to the title, but they ultimately fell in six games.
Just like George and just like Vogel, the team is setting itself up for another step forward.
Since Vogel took over, the Pacers have slowed the pace. Just two years ago, they were the sixth-fastest-paced team in the NBA, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Last year, they were top-10 in offensive and defensive ratings. This season, the Pacers have the 20th-best offensive efficiency -- deceiving considering they have quite a versatile offense -- and the NBA's best defense behind the sixth-slowest pace.
The statistics mark that along with the growth over the last three years, the strategic identity has been forged around the personality of an Indiana team that has been rekindled since the good ol' days.
So the next step forward would be the Pacers finding themselves step further from last year, in the Eastern Conference Finals. If they make another leap, that Indiana Pacer mentality will likely again meet the Heat.