When I heard the Indiana Pacers were going to rest all five starters against the Milwaukee Bucks Wednesday night, I thought it was absurd. Given the weak state of the NBA‘s Eastern Conference, the Pacers should be able to sweep a series or two. That should give them plenty of rest.
The central theme of this entire season has been the number one seed, home court advantage, no Game 7 in Miami. And, in what seemed like a fit of desperation, Pacers head coach Frank Vogel seemed to throw up his hands in surrender. In reality, he might just be an evil genius.
One thing I’ve found about fans of Indiana teams is that we want our players to be likable. We care about likability almost more than we care about winning. This Pacers team started out the season with so much energy, so much promise. And lately, for whatever reason, they’ve become unlikable. The fans started to boo at home; the team was falling apart, fighting, dissonant, an unholy mess. With the exception of the one-point win over the Miami Heat on March 26, the team hasn’t been any fun.
Losing could be forgiven if the games were at least fun, and if fans felt like they were getting something out of their experience with the team, but the Pacers had fallen so deep into a funk that I was starting to wonder if they’d be able to win even one playoff series, let alone earn a highly anticipated grudge match with the Heat.
Maybe this Pacers team is weak. Maybe they’re physically battered (lord knows Roy Hibbert has taken a few blows to the skull in the last couple of weeks). Maybe they’re just not mentally tough; several of these guys are young and have never been through this sort of skid before, so maybe they just legitimately didn’t know how to handle it. Maybe Vogel’s job really was getting a little rocky.
And maybe the magic tonic was in the most unlikely of places: the long-maligned Pacers’ bench. Who cares who their opponent was? The famously low-scoring bench produced more than 100 points and had fun doing it. The whole team rallied and smiled and laughed together, and they won a game on the road. And, since the Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Heat, their season-long goal is still achievable, especially with one last meeting with Miami looming on Friday. If the Pacers do recover their chemistry, get back on course, enjoy playing together, and eventually make a championship run, history will point to this night and to the coach who was brave enough to throw up his hands.