January 12, 2015

At this time a year ago, the Indiana Pacers were 29-7 and well on their way to finishing with the Eastern Conference's best record.

Suddenly, that seems like a long time ago.

Fast forward to the present and the Pacers are merely fighting for a playoff spot. They head into Tuesday night's game against Minnesota at 15-24, a shining example of how fast things can change in the NBA.

The biggest blow, of course, came when All-Star forward Paul George broke his right leg in a gruesome injury that occurred after running into a basketball stanchion during an intrasquad scrimmage for Team USA in Las Vegas on Aug. 1. The Pacers also lost Lance Stephenson in free agency to Charlotte and have endured one injury after another since the season began.

The latest scare came in a spirted 117-102 loss at Golden State on Wednesday night, when center Roy Hibbert landed awkwardly going for a rebound and sprained his left ankle. Hibbert, who missed four games earlier this season with an injury to the same ankle, has played through the injury since.

''We've been dealing with it all year,'' Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. ''If a guy goes down, everybody else has to step up. It's nothing new to this season.''

Indeed.

David West sat out the first 15 games with a sprained right ankle. George Hill (bruised left knee and sore left groin), Rodney Stuckey (sore right groin) and C.J. Watson (bruised right foot) also have missed time with various injuries.

What has happened to the Pacers is one of the league's most perplexing developments this season. It also has served as a lesson for some teams on top not to take the good times for granted.

After all, a couple of bad breaks and they could be tumbling next.

''This game is so fragile,'' said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, whose team has gone from a perennial afterthought to the best record in the league in just a few years. ''It's such a delicate balance.''

Here are some things to watch in the NBA this week:

KING'S RETURN: Cleveland is expected to get LeBron James back this week, and his return couldn't come any sooner. The Cavaliers are 1-7 since James has been out with knee and back injuries. They visit the Suns on Tuesday, Lakers on Thursday and Clippers on Friday.

SOARING HAWKS: Atlanta has won eight straight and 22 of 24 games to rise to the top of the East. The Hawks hit the road for games at Philadelphia, Boston, Toronto and Chicago.

BIGGEST LOSERS: About the only thing New York and Minnesota seem to be competing for is the top spot in the draft lottery. Each team has lost 15 games in a row. It's the longest single-season losing streak in Knicks history, and things are getting so bad in the Big Apple that fans are putting bags over their heads at Madison Square Garden. Minnesota's longest single-season skid is 16, which the Wolves last did during the 2009-10 season.

STABALIZING PISTONS: Detroit is 8-1 since making the surprising decision to waive Josh Smith and absorb the rest of his contract. The Pistons play Toronto, New Orleans, Indiana and Philadelphia next.

HOME-COURT ADVANTAGE: Oracle Arena has long been one of the NBA's loudest buildings, and the Warriors are taking advantage of it this season. They have won 14 straight and 16 of 17 at home, with the lone loss coming to the defending champion San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 11. Of course, they're also 13-4 on the road. Golden State visits Utah, Oklahoma City and Houston this week. The Warriors also host Miami on Wednesday.

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STAT LINE OF THE WEEK

Andre Drummond grabbed 19 rebounds and Greg Monroe had 18 boards to help the Pistons beat Dallas 108-95 on Wednesday night. It was the first time Detroit had multiple players with at least 18 rebounds in the same game since Happy Hairston (31) and Walt Bellamy (20) did it against the San Diego Clippers on Feb. 8, 1969.

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Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP

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