When trying to collect my thoughts about this past season for the Indiana Pacers, I sometimes feel that quoting Dickens may be the most appropriate summarization. With the tendency to take every topical piece of sports news to the extreme, it’s sometimes hard to have an objective eye. It feels like fandom of a team comes along with a license to overreact. But looking back, there were certainly moments where the best or worst of times felt in sight. This year’s squad is going to be one of the most memorable in team history. Part of me now wonders if I’m looking at the end of a run or we’re in the middle of the story.
A few years ago a young Pacers squad caught my attention. I’d spent the previous years completely uninvested in a team who not only seemed incapable of winning games consistently but was unable to have a squad that was not going to be in the news for anything other than violence or dumb behavior in seedy places. But the 2011 NBA playoffs included Indy for the first time since 2006. This was a group that seemed to be hard working and interested on the defensive end, if still raw. Indiana had finally got rid of their “defensive minded” coach in Jim O’Brien. I couldn’t buy into the team even after they’d rid themselves of the previous troublemakers because a team that was supposed to be built on defense was consistently allowing huge point totals and losing constantly. The team started winning some more in the months after assistant Frank Vogel took over. I noticed they were holding teams to lower totals and coach Vogel seemed to be saying all the right things. So early on a Saturday as the Pacers opened the playoffs in Chicago, I sat down to watch my first game in a long time. I was hooked pretty quickly. They gave that great Bulls team a great fight, losing in five tough games.
Vogel seemed to be the right fit, someone preaching defense first and continually mindful of encouraging his young squad. Players who seemed to like playing basketball and playing it with each other. Fast forwarding to the start of this year, Indy was now a playoff tested group having been tested by the two time defending champions a few times. They had a team identity. Teams knew their weaknesses, but they were determined to use their smashmouth style and beat opponents into submission. They’d brought Miami to seven games with a style that seemed well fit to play against their wing oriented team. There was reason for optimism. They had young All Stars in Roy Hibbert and Paul George and a veteran presence in David West. After a few off season acquisitions, people were starting to talk about the team being a legitimate championship contender. I won’t lie. I bought the hype. I thought that if they played their game and kept consistent, there was a chance to dethrone Miami. The season started well. Really well. Indy won the first game. And the first nine. They started eighteen and two. Sportscenter was talking heavily about small markets with Portland also playing so well. Non Pacers fans finally wondered aloud how good this team was. It wasn’t just whether or not this team could compete with the Heat but now if they could take down the best of the West. They continued with their hot play, piling up wins in impressive fashion. They weren’t eking these games out. They were grinding teams into submission and making double digit victories a common occurrence. Friends who weren’t basketball fans often brought them up in conversation, commenting on good play like they’d bring up the weather. My favorite current player was an All Star with people talking about him in the MVP discussion. Paul George had kept up his impressive defensive play and had a November where he tore into opposing teams, lighting them up from midrange. People were trying to keep at least a casual investment. As they headed towards the All Star break, the talk got bigger. People asked me if they were now the favorites to win the title and even pipe dream ideas on whether or not the team could challenge the all time record for wins in a season. I casually dismissed the idea, but couldn’t deny that the question had flitted around in my head for a bit. It was fun to root for a front running team. They entered the All Star break at a slower pace of wins but at a still very impressive record of fourty and twelve, giving Vogel the chance to coach the East All Stars.
But then there were some losses. At first it was a random game or two. Flashes of some of the sloppy passing and stagnant offense that had plagued the team in the past. But it was a few games, no big deal. The pace they’d played with the starters eating up such heavy minutes at a historically great defense from the start of the season couldn’t be consistently kept up. I wasn’t worried. Besides, I’d let myself fall into the hook of them being the hot topic of the NBA. They were now one of the powerhouse teams that took a playoff battle from another playoff team to shake up. But then a few losses became a few more. And then there were rumors. As the now losing streaks went on, there was talk of players not getting along, of chasms between them over some pretty serious allegations. They were having a hard time scoring efficiently and even the vaunted defense wasn’t playing near the level they’d started the season at. The only real grace from the scrutiny that was now heavier after the impressive start was the Miami didn’t seem to want to string together wins of their own. Indy had surrendered the number one seed in the East late in the season and it looked like they might lose the home court advantage they’d vocally come out before the season they said they wanted and needed to take the Heat out. But the team rallied for huge wins against LeBron’s guys and the Thunder. They kept the top record, even if they were limping into the playoffs.
Even after all the poor play, there was little reason to think that the Pacers would have trouble with a team that barely made the playoffs and missing their best player. But the previous struggles not only persisted but seemed to get worse in the playoffs. The defense couldn’t seem to catch up with all of Atlanta’s 3 point shooters. Hibbert couldn’t seem to stay on the floor, playing like a poor backup and not a player having just been playing in the All Star game. I was still answering questions from friends. But now the tone was different. People asked me what was wrong with them. They wanted the new hot sports take. It wasn’t fun to see a team that at times looked unsure of how to run plays be wearing the same uniform as the team that started the season. The Pacers that looked like title contenders took seven games to beat the Hawks, a team that finished with thirty-eight wins in eighty-two games. It took a special effort from David West to even force that seventh game. The season was now a full on roller coaster. But they’d got past the first round. And excuses could be made that Atlanta was a tough match up with the small ball and three point shooting they ran out on the floor. The next opponent, the Washington Wizards, would provide a more traditional two big man starting lineup and should be a more comfortable series for Hibbert. George Hill would still be faced with a tough, speedy match up at the point guard but the defense around him could settle down more. Instead, Washington early on looked like the better of the two teams. Their young guard rotation seemed to be poised to take the ‘Zards into the conference finals. Many of the pundits had picked Washington to come out on top in the series and it looked like they’d prove true. But Indy once again dug deep and found the resolve to finish the series. They’d made it to the round that people from the beginning of the season had been looking forward to, the Heat and Pacers for Eastern conference supremacy.
Game one in Indy was the kind of game that let you forget the recent past. The Pacers took care of the ball and dictated the pace. They scored nearly at will on a good defense. Miami wasn’t the same defensive beast from the year before but had played adequately. David West took the opportunity to punish LeBron, making the Heat forward a liability on defensive end. But the first game was a bit of an outlier as Miami turned up the defensive intensity, often pressing full court to take advantage of the lack of ball handling by the Pacers. When it got to game five, I was certain of a win at home and then a loss in Miami for game six. It just felt right in a season of large swings being the only real normalcy. It was the outcome that had to be. The body language of the team had already conceded the loss before the final buzzer sounded. The team was now left to ponder what had just happened and what was to come. The rest of us were left to ponder the same things.