Win or Lose, Pacers Have Made the Leap
Nobody will blame the Indiana Pacers if they lose to the Miami HEAT in this series. This Miami team features not only the league MVP, but one of the most physically gifted and dominant players ever in LeBron James. With Dwyane Wade helping him run one of the most efficient transition offenses the world hath ever seen, they truly can be a dominant force when they want to be. When Miami is playing as well as they played in the third quarter of Game 5, nobody can beat those guys.
So not only will nobody blame Indiana if they drop the series, either Thursday night or over the weekend if Game 7 becomes necessary, very few people actually expected the Pacers to win in the first place. Taking Game 2 in Miami and snapping their 13-game home winning streak was impressive. Pushing their series lead to 2-1 a couple days later was even more unbelievable. But before those two games, nobody was putting big money on the Pacers down in Vegas.
Despite that fact, it’s impossible not to look at this series as a huge step in the right direction for Indiana, whatever happens to them in Game 6 and beyond. Success in the NBA works like a ladder, with very few teams skipping rungs to championship glory. Normally, a promising young team with realistic aspirations for a ring works its way upwards slowly, getting one rung higher each year until they’re lucky enough to seriously contend. Heartbreak in the postseason breeds renewed determination, and that’s the way a lot of NBA greats have won their titles. Losing, rebuilding and then winning.
Indiana is currently on that course. A year ago, they were content with getting themselves back into the playoffs for the first time in five years, giving the top-seeded Bulls everything they could handle in a hard-fought, grueling first-round series. They lost the series, obviously, but the team was still really young, with most of the key players receiving rookie-deal paychecks.
Getting to the postseason and playing well was a strong step in the right direction, but not strong enough to stand pat after bowing out to Chicago. Larry Bird and David Morway went out in the offseason and traded for George Hill and signed David West, adding two Western Conference guys that have seen plenty of the playoffs, then later adding Leandro Barbosa at the trade deadline for even more veteran leadership. That was enough to get the Pacers their first series win since 2005, followed up by pushing the best team in the Eastern Conference to its breaking point.
The series isn’t over, of course, even though the Pacers would have a very hard time winning the next two in a row against a motivated Miami team, but even if things did end this round for the Pacers, the future remains bright. Every major piece of this rotation is likely back next season except for Leandro Barbosa, who will enter unrestricted free agency, and the team has the fifth most cap space in the league heading into the offseason (they’re currently $21+ million under the cap). Granted, pretty much all of that will be used to extend guys like Roy Hibbert and George Hill, perhaps this summer, and Darren Collison, Paul George, and Tyler Hansbrough in the offseasons to come, but the space means they won’t necessarily have to lose the core that’s grown so well together over the course of the last two years. If they’re together for another four or five years? Look out, Eastern Conference.
And that’s the good news. Whatever else happens this year, the Pacers have already made progress. They won more games than they did a year ago, they produced an All-Star for the first time since 2009, they got deeper into the playoffs than they have in ages and most other teams will enter next season legitimately fearing them. With almost everyone back next year, they should win the Central Division, particularly with Derrick Rose out for most or all of the season rehabbing his knee.
This is a very, very good Indiana Pacers team that is moving quickly in the right direction. Two straight wins would make them tremendous heroes, but that seems unlikely. Still, they climbed a rung on their ladder this season, and that’s enough for now. Next season will be when the huge expectations really settle in.