May 02, 2016

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The Indiana Pacers turned what was supposed to be a transitional season into one filled with promise.

Paul George regained his All-Star form. Myles Turner emerged as a potential future star, and the Pacers showed they could win while playing distinctly different styles.

Now they have to figure out how to take that next step, from playoff team to conference contender.

''It's our first year together. We had a rookie in our lineup, who is going to get better, who is going to come back a different player. We took a two-seed, a 55-plus win team to Game 7,'' George said after Indiana's season-ending loss to Toronto on Sunday night. ''It's been a long journey, I'm very proud of my guys.''

The Pacers are finished after blowing a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 5 and falling just short in Game 7, also on the road.

Few expected this series to be so competitive, primarily because the Pacers have struggled to match up with the Raptors for four seasons.

But if the series proved anything, it's that Indiana might not be far away.

When training camp opened, Indiana was one of the league's great mysteries.

George was still trying to prove he could come all the way back from a gruesome compound fracture in his right leg. Turner was a 19-year-old rookie, dubbed by team president of basketball operations Larry Bird as the team's best shooter.

Bird went all in on getting rid of the plodding, physical style Indiana relied on to reach back-to-back Eastern Conference finals before George's injury. The goal was more small ball.

No, coach Frank Vogel didn't have all the pieces to make Bird's preferred style work every game, so he mixed-and-matched and found enough combinations to still win 44 games and nearly pull off an improbable playoff victory.

George proved the doubters wrong by making his third All-Star appearance and nearly breaking the single-game scoring record, and then averaged 27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists while shooting 45.5 percent from the field and making 61 of 64 free throws in the playoffs.

Perhaps more importantly, George took another step in becoming the unquestioned leader by challenging himself and his teammates to do more throughout the series against Toronto.

What he needed was more help.

''I ran out of gas a little bit,'' George said after Game 7. ''I'm not going to try and sit here and be Superman. I definitely was winded late in the game.''

Still, the Pacers appear to have a bright future.

George acknowledges he still lacks some of the explosiveness and strength from before the injury, and he expects to be even better next season.

Turner sounds committed to sticking around Indianapolis this summer so he can get stronger, refine his game and perhaps extend his shooting range.

And with another offseason to fine-tune the roster, Bird is expected to be active.

A handful of Indiana natives could become free agents this season, most notably Memphis guard Mike Conley and New Orleans guard Eric Gordon. Indiana has four free agents of its own - starting center Ian Mahinmi, backup forwards Jordan Hill and Solomon Hill, and backup guard Ty Lawson. And the midseason rumors about a possible trade of Indianapolis natives, George Hill to Atlanta for Jeff Teague, could resurface.

Bird has not yet said what he intends to do.

What is clear, though, is that the Pacers need a stronger supporting cast around their two cornerstones.

''I couldn't be more proud of our guys and how far we've come this year,'' Vogel said. ''We remade our franchise this year, completely recreated an identity, went through several shifts and played our best basketball down the stretch.''

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