INDIANAPOLIS — They represent a hospitable Midwestern city that’s fond of greeting strangers with a folksy “hi, ya’ll!” Their coach is friendly and approachable. Actually, the players themselves are really nice guys, quite a contrast from the rough and tumble clowns that engaged in the bloodiest fight in NBA history.
Yep, these Pacers are mighty swell and fun to be around, which is all good. Unless they’re trying to close out a tight game or a playoff series. That’s when being nice guys is all bad.
“You’ve got to be a little angry,” said Danny Granger, Indiana’s leading scorer in the playoffs at 20.5 ppg.
You’ve got to step on the other guy’s throat, and then again just to make sure the body isn’t twitching. Such is the mentality that’s necessary this time of year, when a team is ready to move to the next challenge. The Pacers took a commanding 3-1 lead over the Magic into their house Tuesday (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV), an ideal setting to clinch the best-of-seven first round, although the Pacers’ cut-throat mentality has been anything but against Orlando.
They blew an eight-point lead with three minutes left in Game 1 (which they lost), then saw a 19-point lead evaporate in Game 4. They were able to salvage that game in overtime, but the question persists with this group: are they nasty enough to challenge for a conference title?
The Pacers exhibited the same troublesome traits last spring, which proved to be fatal against the Bulls. Now, before we go on, let’s keep this in perspective. The Pacers, then a No. 8 seed, were playing against Derrick Rose and the No. 1-seeded Bulls. It was Indiana’s first real playoff push since Larry Bird remodeled the franchise. Plus, the Pacers did have a few playoff first-timers in the rotation, specifically Roy Hibbert and Paul George, a rookie then. And finally, that crew didn’t have Leandro Barbosa or David West or George Hill, three battle-tested veterans of playoff teams elsewhere.
Therefore, things will be different. Right?
“We have what it takes to finish the job,” said West. “We just have to show it.”
The Magic shouldn’t be much of a problem. There’s no Dwight Howard, obviously, and with the exception of Glen Davis, no other player is exactly making the Pacers sweat. Stan Van Gundy is quite possibly a coach feeling a push toward the end of the plank. And the Pacers are at home.
Instead, the killer instinct will be measured more in the East semifinals, where the Pacers are likely to meet the Heat. If they blow a few leads in that series, they can kiss their season goodbye quick. Miami has two players capable of closing strong, Dwyane Wade and (at least a non-NBA Finals setting) LeBron James.
The Pacers would do themselves a great service by adopting a reliable fourth-quarter technique, which is tricky for a team without a certified go-to guy. West and Granger immediately spring to mind, but also George, who’s averaging only 10 points against the Magic (four below his season average) must become more assertive and take on the role he’s being groomed for.
Strange thing: one of the all-time greats in stepping on the other guy’s throat, Bird, the Pacers’ team president. And now we’ll see if he assembled the kind of team capable of adopting his mentality. None of the Pacers can play like Bird, but they’d best behave like Bird when it’s time for a drastic personality change. Closing out a game or a series, as we see, isn’t for nice guys.