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Pacers Take Next Step, So Now What?
Posted By Joel Brigham On May 19, 2013 @ 6:33 am In NBA | No Comments
Two years ago, the Indiana Pacers gave the Chicago Bulls everything they could handle in a first-round series that was supposed to be a blowout. Last season, they were wiped out of the Eastern Conference Semifinals despite taking a 2-1 series lead over the eventual NBA champion Miami HEAT.
This spring, the Pacers made the next logical step by advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals—something they haven’t done in nine years—and they’re riding just about as high as you’d expect them to be.
After the game, all five Indiana starters—George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert—appeared on the podium at once. That’s extremely unusual since usually only one or two players from a team make that trip, but the Pacers did it to show that this series win was truly a team effort. Stephenson was the star in Game 6, but each of the team’s five starters led the team in scoring at some point over the course of the season.
According to West, that has everything to do with how cohesive this unit really is.
“This is the most together group I’ve ever been a part of,” West said. “Every day, every guy talks to every other guy on this team. I’ve been on some teams where that wasn’t the case, but on this team everybody has a conversation with everybody. That’s huge for us, especially in tough situations, tough environments.
“We don’t have any egos,” West added. “We don’t have a bunch of ‘I’ guys; we have a bunch of ‘we’ guys, guys who are intent on doing whatever we have to do to win a game. If it’s Paul’s night, if it’s Roy’s night, if it’s George’s night, it doesn’t matter as long as we’re all working towards the same goal.”
And all year that goal has been to at least get one round further in the postseason than they did last postseason, and all year long there’s been a general sense around that locker room that Miami would be the team they’d face if and when that time actually came.
Now that it’s actually here, though, the Pacers know they’re going to have to take their game to another level in their opportunity to redeem themselves against the team that eliminated them from the postseason a year ago.
“It’s exciting, but this is not about getting back at Miami,” said Indiana head coach Frank Vogel. “If you’re in the final four (of the playoffs) you’re competing for a championship. They’re just the next team that’s in our way, and that’s how we’re approaching it.
“We’re not satisfied with where we’re at. There’s no ceiling on this team this year, and we’re looking forward to the next series.”
That next series is coming, but when looking at how this Pacers team was built, it’s sort of amazing that they’re even going to appear in the Eastern Conference Finals in the first place. This is a group that was built almost entirely of players taken at a time in the draft where it’s very hard to find stars. George was selected with the 10th pick in 2010. Hibbert was the 17th pick in 2008. Even Hill, who wasn’t technically drafted by Indiana but rather acquired in a trade for Kawhi Leonard, was taken 15th just a couple of summers ago.
For small-market teams that are not good enough to contend for championships, but not bad enough to contend for a top-three draft pick, that’s a hard way to rebuild or make it to the next level competitively. Indiana, thanks to a master plan that was set forth by Larry Bird and David Morway and carried on by Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard, found a way to transform themselves into one of the league’s four best teams in a way that really no other franchise has done.
According to Hibbert, as soon as the team brought in West and made Vogel their head coach, that was enough to turn those middling draft picks into something special.
“Before Coach took over, we weren’t built for a deep playoff run; we were built for shooting threes,” Hibbert said. “When guys like David came to our team, he told us other team’s scouting report for us, and that’s when things turned around… the whole culture went to being tougher, gritty, getting in the paint, getting to the free throw line. That’s what turned this whole thing around.”
Now, they’ll continue that turnaround against the HEAT in the next round, but whatever happens the Pacers have officially completed the task of making forward progress.
“Look at NBA history. Every great basketball team, every team that’s on a championship journey, takes steps,” Vogel said. “They take it a step further than they were a year before. We were a first round elimination team a couple years ago against the Bulls, we were knocked out in the second round last year by Miami, and I’m just proud of the year-long effort to take that next step.”
But the question is, are they ready for that next step? Or does that forward progress stop at this series win, at least for now?
In other words, are these Pacers ready to seriously contend for a championship this year, or this experience just another building block? That’s what the Eastern Conference Finals are going to show us.
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