Over the last 19 years, I have watched or listened to nearly 1,500 Pacer games, not including the 173 playoff games during that span. These games have affected me on different levels, ranging from being background noise while I slept to inundating me with anxiety. They have inspired both cursing and laughter. Over the years I have cheered raucously in arenas and clapped violently from my couch. I have shared great memories with friends; I have suffered alone.
The Pacers have pushed me to pace, to chain smoke, to drink too much. I have danced, hugged, screamed. I have wept bitter tears and tears of joy. But as with all things, with time passed, the games blend and fold upon one another until the years and the memories become one mass of Pacer games played. Until a DJ Augustine crossover could just as easily be a Travis Best crossover, and my lament about a slow moving center could apply to Rik Smits as well as to Roy Hibbert. Antonio Davis could even sub in for David West and I might not flinch. How many handwritten letters (sent and unsent) to Donnie Walsh, how many long-winded e-mails to friends, how many angry texts, until all the ink spilled is one story, one event, one grand game played out in my mind? 1,500 chances, 1,500 hopes, 1,500 frustrations, until Market Square Arena and Bankers Life Fieldhouse are one arena, and all the arenas across the league have become one court, a 94 by 50 foot wooden pallet, awash with the sweat and blood and sacrifice of dozens of men, that somehow paint not a portrait of a singular NBA basketball game, but paint a portrait of me—a 34-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy simultaneously one in time and space. These are my Pacers. This, too, is me. And so I watch, continue to watch, continue to add to the grand painting of accumulated and increasingly vague Pacer memories.
As I watched game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, the trend continued. Spike Lee sat court side as though he hadn't left his seat since 1994. It was another game in which this current incarnation of the Pacers put together their recipe for victory—clamping down on defense, their offense enough to create separation, cruising their way to another double digit home win. And then it happened. Iman Shumpert hit three three-pointers in a row, and a ten point margin and a seeming win at hand, turned into a dogfight. Suddenly Carmelo Anthony's efficient and nearly superhuman offensive effort against the leagues best defense didn't seem a footnote in a losing effort. As New York's role players continued to rain threes into the fourth quarter, I couldn't bear to watch anymore.
I turned off the TV and turned on the radio so I could listen to Mark and Slick. They had cheered and lamented with me through the years, their voices had guided me through so many close games, I knew I had to be with them now. With 5:42 remaining in the game, the Pacers up 90-89, cold-all-series JR Smith hit a huge three to put New York up two and Slick yelled “dammit,” and my stomach flipped and my knees buckled. The three of us had been here before. Teams lose more than they win. To be a fan is to understand that you will be let down more often than not. The three of us had been let down together so many times. I had to sit, I had to pace, but more importantly I had to begin to prepare myself for what was to come. A Pacers team too inexperienced to win on this stage. “Dammit” is right, Slick. And so, with the young Pacers down two, Carmelo backing down Paul George on the low-post, spinning to the basket, our season on the brink, I held my breath, but deep down knew it was over. And then Big Roy Hibbert blocked Carmelo's dunk at the rim! Mark Boyle screamed “recycled!” as George gathered the loose ball, pushed it up the court, found Hill who passed to West on the left block who sent the ball to a wide open Lance Stephenson under the basket for two. We were all tied up. The crowd roared through my radio so it became difficult to hear Mark Boyle, as the Pacers ripped off an 11-2 run, leading to an unlikely win, led by the unlikeliest of heroes, Lance Stephenson.
Lance Stephenson, drafted in the second round by Larry Bird, was passed on by every NBA team, because in spite of his obvious physical talents, he was perceived as a knucklehead. He had maturity issues, and at the time, it was a huge risk by Bird, for a team desperately trying to reinvent its image. We had shipped out all the “thugs” and had brought in “good guys.” Off the bat, Stephenson had legal problems, pissed off his teammates, and seemed to bring tension and unease to the franchise. But Bird stayed steadfast, signed him to a cheap long-term deal and rolled the dice. When coach Frank Vogel inserted him into the starting lineup after Danny Granger went out with his season-ending knee injury, and Danny's presumed replacement Gerald Green seemed lost, it appeared more desperation than inspiration. And yet Lance was a revelation. He still made boneheaded mistakes, his offensive game was modest, defensively he occasionally got lost. But the early-season Pacers, a floundering team, had suddenly found some nasty, and in the process forged an identity. Five man rotational Plus/Minus stats show that with Lance in the starting lineup the Pacers were +288, better than any other lineup in the league outside of Oklahoma City starters at +291. So there you have it: Great story—troublemaker finds a home. But Game 6 against the Knicks was something I did not see coming. A poised, aggressive Stephenson produced a career high 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists, consistently driving to the basket at will, pressuring the Knicks defense, and in no small part helped secure the win for Indiana.
Out of the blue and gold fog that is my Pacers memory, certain games and moments emerge. And most often those memories codify because they stand out for their shock value: 25 points in the fourth quarter, 8 points in 9 seconds, the 40 footer, Memorial Day Miracle, Byron's shot that started it all. There was Tayshon's block, the 4 point play, Reggie's last game, The Brawl. What binds all of these moments, what makes them stand out from the rest, is that I didn't see them coming. I was wholly surprised. Game 6 against the Knicks the other night joins that list—for Lance's emergence, a recently concussed Hill gutting it out, West's creative and timely passing, George's feathery jumper, Roy's block, and the team's collective patience and poise. After all these jaded years and 1,500 some odd games, I can still be surprised.
During the series, the Indiana Pacers produced five different leading scorers in six games. They won as a team. This Indiana team is the first NBA team to make the Conference finals without a top-5 draft pick since 1994. But the Pacers have always won as a unit, a collection greater than their parts. Since joining the NBA, their most notable star was a skinny guard who needed multiple screens to employ his unworldly talent for hitting big shots. Indiana teams over the last two decades have been built on depth and toughness and chemistry, and in as much, they compete, and have stayed largely relevant. Yet in the absence of a big name star, they have almost always been the underdog. The same is true today as it was 19 years ago. So what is the Pacers reward for upsetting the Knicks? A rematch with the Miami Heat and a chance to take on the most dominant basketball player on the planet, LeBron James.
MATCH UP VS. MIAMI
Last season James won the league MVP, an NBA championship, the Finals MVP, and an Olympic Gold Medal. He followed that up with one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. He led the Miami Heat in points (26.8, 4th in the NBA,) rebounds (8, second highest among wing players in NBA,) assist (7.3, 10th in the NBA), and field goal percentage, (.565, 5th in the NBA.) He finished with 1.7 steals a game, while behind Dwyane Wade, it was still good enough for 12th in the league. He ended the year number one in Player Efficiency Rating, an equation created by statistician John Hollinger, widely considered a useful tool to understand the overall impact of individual players. It was the seventh highest PER in NBA history, only topped by seasons from Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and LeBron himself. During the 2012-13 season James had a run of six straight games in which he scored 30 points a game on 60% shooting from the field, a stretch of dominance that no one else has achieved in NBA history. Awarded his fourth MVP at years end, James landed in the elite company of all-time greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain, and joins only Russell in winning 4 MVP's in 5 years. LeBron led his team on a 27 game win streak. And one gets the feeling he is not done. His interest seems less in beating the competition, and more in perfecting the game. He's a basketball nerd—a student of the game and it's history, as well as a stat geek, eager to learn and evolve based on advanced analytics. Olympic coach Mike Krzyzewski called LeBron brilliant, and on top of that he just happens to be one of the most gifted physical athletes the NBA has ever seen. LeBron James is not only the most dominant player of his era, at the age of 28, is already in the debate for any era.
James is flanked by Dwyane Wade, a top-5 shooting guard all-time. (Jordan, Kobe, the Logo, are the top three for sure. If you leave Wade out of the top five, he's only competing with Sam Jones and Pistol Pete Maravich, so is at the very least number six on any list. In my mind, Wade has the hardware over Pete.) Wade finished 7th in overall PER and he's the Heat's second best player. Add in Chris Bosh, All-Star that quietly put together a monster season. He shot .535 from the floor landing him 14th in the league in field goal percentage, and shot .557 on two pointers largely from jump shots between 16 and 20 feet, qualifying him in no uncertain terms as an elite jump shooter. The Heat also trot out savvy veterans, Chris Anderson, Shane Battier, and arguably the greatest shooter of all time in Ray Allen. All of this adds up to the Miami Heat possessing the best offense in the league. And not by a little bit. They averaged 102.9 points per game, good for 6th in the NBA, but were the second best three point shooting team in the league, and shot .496 overall from the field, demolishing # 2 San Antonio at .481. They beat teams by an average of 7.9 points per game in the regular season and in the playoffs that number is an astounding 13.9. One could make the argument that they have played weak competition in Milwaukee and an undermanned Chicago Bulls team, but an average 14 point margin of victory in the playoffs is what it is. The Heat have only lost three games in their last 48 outings. If all of that doesn't terrify you as a Pacer fan, you're just not paying attention. So how do Pacers compete?
KEYS TO VICTORY
In many ways this will be a series of contrasting styles. The Heat are number one in offense and the Pacers are the best defensive team in the league. Miami was top ten in forcing turnovers during the regular season, while Indiana was in the top ten in turning the ball over. The Pacers were the number one rebounding team, while Miami ranked dead last. The numbers bear out what our eyes tell us. Miami plays small ball, spreading the court with multiple shooters and possess elite wing players that pressure the ball, get turnovers and easy baskets. While the Pacers play smash-mouth basketball, going big with rebounders and play sound, non-gambling defense. These contrasts give insight into Indiana's keys to victory.
For the Pacers keys to victory, I'm going to refer to the matchup between the two teams this season, as well as the six-game playoff matchup last year. The teams are still largely the same personnel-wise. Yes, Miami added Ray Allen, “Birdman” Chris Anderson, and were without Bosh much of last years series, so they are better. The Pacers have an almost entirely new bench, but it still is not much of a factor. They are without Danny Granger, and his length, leadership, moxie, and shooting will be sorely missed. But the Pacers starters 1 through 5 are improved over last year, so let's call it a wash. (Danny, don't take that statement too hard. I hope you come back next year 100% healthy. Yet despite being the face of the franchise for five years, Most Improved Player, NBA AllStar, you and your 14 million dollar contract need to come off the bench next season. I hope that you understand that its best for the team, and if you can check your ego, re-sign for a reasonable contract, and play this utterly indispensable role, you'll be rewarded by being a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate and a key player on a team that will vie for a Championship over the next three to five years. Thank you in advance.)
In the six playoff games last season and the three regular season, rebounding and points in the paint were significant indicators of each outcome. The Pacers out-rebounded Miami by 54 in their four wins, whereas Miami pulled down an extra 14 in their five victories. Indiana did win the battle of the boards in two losses, but those games were marred by turnovers, coughing up 26 and 27 points off turnovers in those games. Turnovers have been a problem all year for the Pacers, but were not particularly so against the Heat—giving up 15.6 to Miami, while surrendering an average of 14.5 to the rest of the league. A key to this series will be keeping those turnovers in check, but more importantly not allowing those inevitable miscues to become easy points for Miami. Beyond that, points in the paint appear to be the most closely related to outcome. In all 9 games, the team who scored more points in the paint came out with the win. It will be extremely important to establish Hibbert and West down low to put pressure on the Heats small lineups, and equally important for George and Stephenson to attack the basket.
While Indiana's size is an advantage in rebounding, interior defense, and on the offensive end against Miami, the Heat's small ball attack will cause Indiana headaches. When Haslem and Bosh are on the floor Hibbert can stay close to basket and bring help defense on slashing wings, but Miami likes to go small with Bosh at center and Shane Battier at the power forward position. That means West will have to defend a three point shooter, which he did fairly successfully when he was matched up against Iman Shumpert in the New York series. But more troubling is that Hibbert will have to guard Bosh, who makes his living on long jumpers and even has three point range. Hibbert isn't adept at chasing players out on the perimeter, which will allow an efficient jump shooter such as Bosh a lot of room to operate, and more importantly will draw Roy out of the paint providing open lanes to LeBron and Wade. It will be interesting to see if Vogel has a defensive scheme to deal with this matchup nightmare. If not, it could be a short series.
Keeping LeBron and Wade out of the paint is extremely important. To that end, the Pacers defense was better than it was last season. In fact, the Heat only scored 30.7 paint points a game against Indiana, their lowest total against any team. Hibbert was superb in the New York series, but he can't do it alone. Stephenson will have to neutralize, if not out play Dwyane Wade. No one in the league can out play LeBron James, but George has shown this season that he can slow him a bit, holding James to 21 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 51%, all below his season averages of 27, 8, 7 and 57%. Like Carmelo and Josh Smith in the previous rounds George will once again have to contend against a stronger player in the post. LeBron likes to post-up on the left block, a place from where he is devastatingly effective. Keeping him out of that area will be easier said than done.
STAYING OUT OF FOUL TROUBLE
George will have to come up with a monster defensive effort and do it without fouling. I believe that fouls will be the most significant factor in the series. If (and when) the Pacers starters get into significant foul trouble, the already difficult task of beating the Heat becomes nearly impossible. While Ian Mahimni and DJ Augustine have played well in stretches, Sam Young deserves credit for his play in game 6 against the Knicks, and Tyler Hansbrough seems to love nothing more than to mix it up against Miami, this series will be decided by the starters. If the starters can't stay on the floor, Pacer Nation will be figuring out how to strengthen the bench for next year sooner rather than later.
BALL MOVEMENT AND SHOOTING
Another way Miami will deal with Indiana's size is by fronting the post. The Pacers have all year long struggled with feeding their big men in the post, particularly against fronting. Battier is one of the best in the business at denying entry passes and the boys in blue and gold will have to be patient and creative in finding ways to get West, Hibbert, and Hansbrough the ball. If Indiana gets frustrated and starts jacking ill-advised three pointers, they may find themselves in large deficits early and often.
The wing players for Indiana must be selective and effective in making Miami pay for doubling the post. If Hill in particular can consistently hit the open three or find the open man in the offensive rotation, the chess match of big vs. small will tilt in the Pacers favor.
One of Indiana's great advantages in this series is that there is not one or two players the Miami Heat's defense can key on. The Pacers score and win by committee. On any given night, any one of the starters can be the leading scorer. That sort of offensive unpredictability will serve Indiana well and keep Miami on its heels. That is true most of all because of the emergence of Lance Stephenson. Last year an after thought, and early in the season a non-threat offensively, Lance, when aggressive, can create havoc with his speed in transition and his strength driving the ball to the basket. He's the X-factor in this series, because I'm not sure what he's capable of. I'm not sure even he knows. But if he can play smart and under control as he did in game 6 against New York, Miami won't know what hit them.
Having said all that, Miami is not going to look past the Pacers as they did last year. They know we are coming. I believe that last year's playoff series was a wake up call for Miami. LeBron's playoff stats before the Heat went down 2-1 against Indiana looked like this: 27.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, on 47% shooting. After Indiana got his attention, his numbers from game four in that series through the Finals went up dramatically to 31.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 51% shooting. We poked the bear and he responded with authority. In no small part, that same series against Indiana inspired Miami's small ball attack. In the first three games they were getting out-muscled and out-bigged (and their most effective big man Chris Bosh was out with injury,) and so Heat coach Eric Spoelstra changed his offense to emphasize his rosters strengths: speed, length, shooting, and one of the most gifted players the league has ever seen. They went small and gave the keys over to LeBron, sparking an offensive juggernaut, and the league hasn't been the same since. Even so, the Pacers won the first two regular season match ups against the Heat. After losing to Indiana on February 1, 89-102, the Miami Heat ripped off 27 wins in a row, the second longest winning streak in NBA history. Miami not only knows we're coming, Indiana is at least partial motivation for the Heat being the dominant team they are today.
Make no mistake, the Pacers are monumental underdogs and no one in the media will pick them to win, no one in Vegas, either. To do so would be foolish. While Indiana's defense can potentially neutralize Miami's potent offense, Indiana's shaky offense is in very real danger of collapsing against the Heat's lightening-quick pressure defense. Miami is not only a good team, they are an historically great team. They have won 45 of their last 48 games. That's why, in my original playoff picks I chose Miami in 5. The Pacers aren't on Miami's level. They are too young, too inexperienced, and they are missing the depth and consistent outside shooting to contend.
But, too, there is this: David West said this about the Indiana Pacers, “This is the most together group I’ve been a part of. I made the observation, at some point every day every guy speaks to every guy on this team, and I’ve been on teams where that’s not the case. Everybody has a conversation at some point throughout the day, and that’s huge for us, especially in tough situations. ... We don’t talk about it, we practice it. We don’t have any egos. We don’t have any ‘I’ guys. We have a bunch of ‘we’ guys.”
This is a special group of guys. It is a confident bunch. They wanted all year to get here, to see the Miami Heat in the playoffs again, to test themselves against the best. Vogel wrote on the whiteboard in the locker room “Believe.” He has these guys believing. And maybe, just maybe that special game 6 against New York will be for this young group of Pacers what that game back in 1994 was to Reggie's Pacers. After multiple years of losing in the first round of the playoffs, Indiana was once again a heavy underdog going into Orlando. The expectations were low, they didn't have a superstar, just a collection of guys that played tough and together. They battled, kept it close, and then it happened—Byron Scott hit a jumper with 2.2 seconds to go, putting the Pacers up 89-88 for an unexpected victory. That win made the team believe they could play with anyone. That shot propelled Indiana all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks, where Reggie would drop 25 in the 4th quarter in the Garden. That moment entered the Pacers into an era in which they were perennial contenders for a decade. Maybe, years from now, we'll remember this year's game 6 like we remember Byron Scott's shot. A moment in which this collection of Pacers began to understand that the sky's the limit. Because basketball still has the ability to surprise. Pacers in 7.