By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
WASHINGTON – The who, the what, the where, the when – all of that stuff is set, the boxes checked, the blanks filled in, no different on paper than how the Indiana Pacers would have written it back in October:
Miami Heat. Eastern Conference finals. Game 1 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Sunday afternoon.
The how of what the Indiana Pacers did – earning a best-of-seven clash with the Heat for the third straight postseason, the teams’ second in a row with a trip to The Finals at stake – has been the big unexpected, the big uneasy.
Whether that makes them less dangerous or more dangerous when they face the two-time NBA defending champions, well, we’ll find out soon enough.
The Pacers’ locker room was split on the impact of their two playoff series so far, in the hour or so after their 93-80 victory over the Washington Wizards Thursday night at the Verizon Center. For some, this always will be a bottom-line business and the scoreboard told the tale, Indiana taking the East semifinals series 4-2 over a feisty team on the rise.
For others, the way it wrapped up – the Pacers losing a 16-point lead, falling behind by one, 74-73, with 8:35 to go, on the road – was sufficiently humbling, reminding them, even scaring them, into some perspective and reflection.
To be clear, none of them said anything about feeling less dangerous. But several brushed off the tortuous path they’ve taken to get “back” to this point, while others realized their struggles over the past month or two had both taken a toll and maybe steeled them for more.
Coach Frank Vogel and point guard George Hill were planted firmly in the land of denial. “Everything is behind us,” Vogel said. “Like we said when we started the playoffs, 33-7 [the Pacers' first-half record] means nothing. How we struggled down the stretch, and took a lot of criticism, that means nothing. That’s behind us and this is where we wanted to be. At the conference finals and a chance to move on.”
Said Hill, asked about people’s perception of the Pacers lately: “People as in, like, you guys? We don’t care about you guys like that. We’re just trying to figure out what’s best for this team in this locker room. Don’t worry about what people are saying about us. Out of all that, we still won [64 games regular and postseason] this year. You can say what you want to, this is a good basketball team.”
Fair enough. But the Pacers got to good by starting out great, then slipping, followed by churning, introspection, vulnerability, bravado, turmoil, resolve, questioning, sniping and redemption. They got well time and again, only to get sick again. The lowly Atlanta Hawks took them to seven games, and the precocious Wizards embarrassed them in Game 5 and rattled them repeatedly. Indiana, the team that so treasured winning home-court advantage through the conference bracket, dropped the openers of both series, got booed at home and went 3-4 at BLFH against the Hawks and Wizards.
So sure, if you go simply by a snapshot, the Pacers are right where they wanted to be. But if you open your assessment to a slideshow, you might land where veteran Washington big man Drew Gooden did Thursday night.
“The Pacers are a team where it’s a roller-coaster ride with them,” Gooden said. “They’re playing elite basketball in spurts. And they’re playing average basketball in spurts.” (more…)