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Tough stretch ahead for road-bound Pacers

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INDIANAPOLIS — Funny thing about the Indiana Pacers. Their best player has missed virtually the entire season. Their emotional leader is out indefinitely. And the bench has largely underachieved.

Yet with 11 games left, they have the second-best record in the East and are poised to win their first Central Division championship since 2004.

But as has been the case all season, there are obstacles to overcome.

If the Pacers (44-27) are to hang on to the No. 2 seed in Eastern Conference playoffs, they’ll have to do most of the work on the road. That’s where they’ll play seven times, beginning tonight at Houston, the first of four straight away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

Not only that, they’ll have to overcome health issues to multiple starters, the most prominent being David West. The rugged power forward has missed the past five games with a lower back strain and is considered day-to-day.

In addition, starting guards George Hill (left groin) and Lance Stephenson (right hip flexor) sat out Monday’s win against Atlanta with minor injuries but aren’t expected to miss significant time.

The most lingering question on the health front, however, is the availability of Danny Granger (sore knee). Indiana’s leading scorer the past five seasons, he has missed all but five games this year and is out indefinitely.

So moving forward, the Pacers don’t expect anything to come easily. Then again, they never have.

Their only expectation is to continue doing what they’ve been doing: Winning as a team, regardless of who is — or who is not — on the court.

“It’s our commitment. We’re really committed as one,” said Paul George, the Pacers’ leading scorer and lone All-Star. “Some nights it’s not going to be there; but for the most part, everybody is dialed in.”

Lately, that includes the bench, which has been erratic for most of the season.

Tyler Hansbrough has started for West and is playing his best basketball of the season. He has had double-doubles in four of his past five games, including 12 points and 11 rebounds Monday against the Hawks.

Gerald Green, who has played in only 53 games, has reached double-figures in three of the past five, including a team-high 19 points in a starting nod against Atlanta.

Rookie Orlando Johnson, who spent time earlier in the year with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the D-League, poured in 15 points Monday night and has begun providing a consistent spark off the bench.

“I have a great deal of trust in him,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “He just makes winning plays night in and night out.”

Backup forward Jeff Pendergraph has been on a similar tear.

West’s absence has opened a door for Pendergraph, who was seldom used the first half of the season. The athletic, energetic, gifted shooter has hit double figures three times in the past five games, including 14 against the Hawks.

“I think he’s a heck of a player, maybe a starter,” Vogel said. “He has an extraordinary basketball IQ. He sees everything.”

In light of the rigorous schedule and fragile health, no one has to remind the Pacers that the path to the No. 2 seed and the division title won’t be blazed by a particular player. It is and has been a collective chore that relies on everyone’s efforts.

“I feel good about our bench,” Vogel said. “If a guy goes down, it won’t be the end of the world for us.”

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