INDIANAPOLIS – Forty-eight minutes to get it right.
The Indiana Pacers have 48 minutes of basketball left to finish off this 2011-12 season and postseason in a way that befits all they achieved. They might, in fact, be able to push that number to 96 or even well beyond, if they can manage to survive and advance from their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Miami Heat.
For now, though, they have Game 6 Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Forty-eight minutes to get it right, win or lose.
That’s the thing now, it isn’t even a matter of beating Miami, a huge task now that they trail in the best-of-seven series down 3-2. The Pacers have been called out by the top-ranking basketball executive in their organization, who also happens to be their resident NBA legend, who happens to be Larry Bird.
Bird, the team president, was so annoyed by what he saw in Indiana’s 115-83 loss in Game 5 Tuesday – the worst beating in Pacers playoff history – that he sought out the beat writer for The Indianapolis Star early Wednesday morning to make his feelings known. “I can’t believe my team went soft,” Bird said in a phone call to reporter Mike Wells. “S-O-F-T. I’m disappointed. I never thought it would happen.”
Well then. So much for that 42-24 record and No. 3 seed in the East in the lockout-shortened season. Enough about the strides the deep and developing Pacers made from December through April. The taste that will stick in their mouths, the words that will ring in their ears are what the great Bird said in the wee hours and the sense that they have let themselves get punked.
Not, it’s worth noting here, just assaulted and battered in the 2-for-1 exchange of flagrant physicality that favored Miami. Getting hit and hit hard – Dwyane Wade by Tyler Hansbrough, Hansbrough by Udonis Haslem and Lance Stephenson by Dexter Pittman – those were incidents in the moment that couldn’t have been addressed further (after the game officials botched two of the three rulings, it says here) without serious mayhem.
What the Pacers have to set right when they play what might be their last game together in a long while is the stuff of identity and pride and toughness. They need to deploy the advantages they have had over the Heat and so many others – center Roy Hibbert and power forward David West – the way they did in Games 2 and 3. They need to show the resiliency that their coach, Frank Vogel, has preached to them since before he got the top job. They don’t need to hit or hurt a soul, but they do need to push back when pushed – in the game, on the scoreboard – and not whimper off into summer.
They owe that to Bird, they owe that to themselves.
“I agree with his assessment. We did play soft,” said Danny Granger, the yappy forward whose comments earlier in the series partly fueled Game 5’s antics. “We got smacked around. We got beat up, we got bullied, and we really didn’t respond well.
“I’ve been with Larry since I’ve been in Indiana for seven years. He’s not been one to hold his tongue, and 99 percent of the time what he’s saying is right. I think he just called out what everyone else saw. We played a soft game. We didn’t play with the playoff intensity that we needed to win.”
Guard George Hill shrugged it off. “If he feels like we’re soft, we’re soft then,” he said after the team’s practice in Miami, prior to a flight home.
So there was mixed reaction to Bird’s shot within the Pacers’ ranks Wednesday, when they practiced in Miami prior to a flight home. But there needs to be none by 8 p.m. Thursday.