Now that the table has been set for the Indiana Pacers versus the Miami Heat in round two of the 2012 NBA Playoffs, the Pacers are finally getting media attention on a much wider scale than they had been all season. This scrappy team of young upstarts and playoff-hardened vets are a far cry of the Pacers teams that wallowed in obscurity for much of the last decade. This year’s team is much more even and much more wise than last year’s squad, which gave the top-seeded Chicago Bulls all they could handle in the 2011 Playoffs. Indiana will do their best to not become a mere stepping stone on the way to a first NBA title for LeBron James. Still, even though the Pacers are finally making national news, they are taking a big back seat to the traveling circus that is the Miami Heat.
Let us begin by discussing the facts. Indiana finished the regular season with a record of 42-24, their best record since 2004, which was good enough to be the third-best record in the Eastern conference and the fifth-best record in the NBA. After a strike-shortened 66 games, the Pacers tallied five more wins than they had in 82 games last season. Indiana had a 19-14 record on the road this season, resulting in only the fourth time in the team’s NBA history where they ended the season with a winning road record. Each of those other seasons, the Pacers reached the Eastern Conference finals. This season, the Pacers had a record of 21-7 after the NBA trade deadline, which was best in the East. Including the Playoffs, the Pacers have a record of 16-4 since April 1st. Earlier this week, Indiana defeated a depleted (but defiant) Orlando Magic team 4-1 in the first round of the Playoffs, winning their first postseason series in seven years. Indiana was the first team in the Eastern Conference to close out their opening-round series.
Indiana head coach Frank Vogel, making his first full season leading an NBA team, finished 3rd in the voting for Coach of the Year. Larry Bird, who had to literally blow up and rebuild this faltering franchise, is a near shoe-in for Executive of the Year. Vogel and Bird teamed-up to build upon a positive 2010-2011 season, adding veteran pieces and brewing a chemistry of confidence, for a deep team that could be contenders for years to come.
Indiana had their ups and downs over the course of this season, winning 11 of their first 12 games in April, but also going on a 5-game losing streak in February. The Pacers were the first team to beat the Bulls at home this season. Indiana also beat the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, and Boston Celtics on the road. The Pacers defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in their only meeting this season, as well as defeating the Miami Heat once in Indiana, and taking a road game in Miami to overtime.
The truth is, that there are many factors as to why Indiana has consistently flown under the radar this season. No matter how big of a bounce-back that Bird, Vogel, and the Pacers have enjoyed, they still lack headlining superstars and headline-making success. The Pacers are still paying for their last headline-making endeavour, which resulted from one grim night in Detroit almost eight years ago. Indiana payed for that ugly occurrence in the nationwide news, and the Pacers as a franchise have payed for it for years. Bird had to cut loose most of his entire roster, and make trades for meager players with outstanding or expiring contracts. The bad press piled up, as did the losing seasons. Before you could say ‘Malice in the Palace’, this once-proud franchise had been shunned and stamped with the “thug” tag, leaving Bird to build this team back to prominence literally from the ground up.
Although the Pacers weren’t winning much during those lean years, they never totally flopped out. Indiana chipped away at the rebuilding process, usually barely missing the playoffs, which resulted in mid-level first round draft picks. Those draft picks became such players as team captain and former NBA All-Star Danny Granger, and Paul George, who made his first appearance this year in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge. Indiana also used the 13th overall pick in the 2009 draft to take Tyler Hansbrough, one of the most decorated players in college basketball history, who was seen to be a major risk to succeed in the NBA. These players all found their way to the Pacers lineup, helping to bring about one of the most successful seasons in the franchise’s NBA history.
Although none of these current Pacers are punching-out fans or shooting-up strip clubs, they aren’t setting the NBA on fire either. Respected in quiet circles around the league, the Pacers remain a shadow behind flashy teams like the Heat, Bulls, and New York Knicks, who make as many headlines for drama as they do for the sheer size of the cities they play for. Even in his absence, Dwight Howard‘s soap opera seemed to overwhelm the Playoff series between the Magic and Pacers. I guess any press is good press. Yet and still, the world will get a chance to see this new team up close on a grand stage, when the Pacers take their talents to South Beach. If the world decides to look close enough, they will undoubtedly see that basketball has indeed returned to Indiana.