INDIANAPOLIS – Many would consider Game 3 a make-or-break game for the Indiana Pacers in their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Miami Heat.
But some Pacers consider Game 3 something of a make-or-break game for the franchise’s fans, wondering what sort of numbers and noise the folks of Indiana will bring to Bankers Life Fieldhouse Tuesday night.
“We had a bet that, we wondered whether there would be more ketchup than mustard,” Pacers guard George Hill. “You don’t get it, do you?”
Actually, Hill’s media audience after shootround Thursday did get it, but he spelled it out for them anyway: He and teammate Paul George had seen the colors in the stands for games against Miami in February and the Chicago Bulls pretty much anytime they hit Indianapolis. Lots and lots of red worn by fans of those teams, enough that the Fieldhouse was awash.
That’s the “ketchup.” The “mustard,” naturally, is Pacers gold, which sometimes gets crowded out because the Fieldhouse isn’t always known for its crowds, period.
So Hill and George got to talking. “We just want to see what it will be,” said Hill, a local guy – he was born, raised and played through college (IUPUI) in town – who takes this stuff personally. “We’re thinking, we’re up and coming. We’ve been very positive role models in the community, things like that, where we think we should have this place jam-packed with a lot of mustard, more than a lot of ketchup.”
It hasn’t been that way yet, despite Indiana’s 42-24 record in the regular season, good for the East’s No. 3 seed. The Pacers ranked next-to-last in home attendance at 14,168, barely 200 more tickets sold per night more than the New Jersey Nets – whose fans at least could hold a grudge against their team for its looming abandonment.
Even factoring in the configuration of the Fieldhouse – generally acknowledged as the best basketball venue in the NBA – and going by percentage of seats filled, the Pacers ranked 26th of 30 at 78.0 percent capacity (18,165). They trailed the Wizards, Hawks and Bucks, and finished higher than only the Cavs, Bobcats, Nets and Pistons – lottery teams all.
Many have attributed the locals’ lukewarm response through the years to the lack of playoff success and to unsavory off-court incidents involving players such as Stephen Jackson and Jamaal Tinsley. Some date it back to the infamous brawl in Detroit in 2004 that for many turned the Pacers into a corn-fed version of Portland’s “Jail Blazers.”
There have been spurts since, and the crowd did pick up in the first round series against Orlando this month, enough that some players and media folks considered it a turning point.
“There have been a lot of nights when it’s been kind of silent in here,” center Roy Hibbert said after Indiana ousted the Magic in five games. “But not tonight. Not this series. I think we’re giving fans something to be proud of.”
Now all they have to do is show up. Hill remains a skeptic.
“Maybe we’ve got to throw the throw the ketchup away and just bring some relish or something,” the point guard said, in what sounded like a cryptic pledge to, what, beat Miami and face Boston in the next round?
“Who knows? We’ll take it for what it is,” Hill said. “If it is a lot of ketchup, we’ll just have to send them home unhappy.”
Asked about the mindset of his team for Game 3, Indiana coach Frank Vogel said: “We’re very hungry.”
No wonder, with all this talk about condiments.