Was The Pacers Season A Success?

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Carpe Diem.

The famous Latin phrase that means “seize the day” is tattooed on the calves of Pacers forward David West. Even though the meaning behind the tattoo is rooted in West’s past,  it can be viewed as a symbolic reminder of what this Indiana Pacers team accomplished this season.

Before the Pacers almost destroyed Pat Riley’s blueprint, the Miami Heat were supposed to trample over every challenger in the Eastern Conference with relative ease:

An interesting roster with a dysfunctional backcourt and a hot headed young center who is just realizing his potential didn’t stand a chance.  Thanks for playing Milwaukee.

No Derrick Rose or Luol Deng, see ya next year Chi town.

Then there were the Pacers. The young group of defensive bangers who played the exact opposite of the Heat’s run and gun Oregon football like style. The Pacers weren’t given much of a chance to beat the Heat, but if you followed the projections closely, the smart analysts knew this series was going to be a bloodbath because of the Pacers size and ability to pound the glass. Chris Bosh wasn’t going to grow four inches in 13 days. Dwyane Wade wasn’t going to return to his 2006-2012 form. The Heat were going to have to win this series by relying on the special abilities of the best player on the planet.

In hindsight the people who thought the Pacers weren’t going to hang with the Heat should have thought about the importance Bosh’s injury in last year’s playoffs. Miami was forced to adopt a completely different offensive style that caught the Pacers off guard. The Heat not only used a small ball lineup that the Pacers hadn’t game planned for, LeBron thrived in the role of power-point forward. Frank Vogel and his troops weren’t ready for the dramatic change, but the pressure they put on the Heat early on in the series gave them the confidence to walk into this year’s Eastern Conference Finals and shrug off the potential intimidation of playing the defending champions with a ticket to the NBA Finals on the line.

Most will remember this seven game stretch as a culmination of positivity for the Pacers. Indiana wasn’t supposed to push Miami this hard. Paul George wasn’t supposed to grow up and rise to a top 15 player in 13 days. Roy Hibbert wasn’t supposed to dominate like this (well actually he was, but I’m on a roll here!), Frank Vogel wasn’t supposed to have as much irrational confidence as Lance Stephenson after making a 30 foot off balance prayer as the shot clock hits :00. As a whole this will be remembered as the beginning of the Pacers morphing into one of the two legitimate threats to stop the Heat from reaching the NBA Finals. The other legit contender is going to enter the 2013-14 season with a top 10 player coming back from an injury that kept him out for an entire season.

I’m looking forward to a Pacers-Bulls second round series in next year’s playoffs already.

Here’s where the positive vibes stop in this column. While the Pacers 2012-2013 season will be remembered as a turning point for the franchise, it could have been so much more. The odds of defeating the Heat in Game 7 were astronomical, especially for a young core that hasn’t dealt with the pressure of a win or go home game with a chance to play for a championship on the line. Teams like the Pacers have to fail in these situations to understand just how much it takes to win with everything on the line.

While I watched the Heat decimate the Pacers at their own game (physical, rebounding, suffocating defense) in the final game of the Eastern Conference Finals , I flashed back to the final play of Game 1. Vogel’s decision to not play Roy Hibbert was talked to death in the aftermath of the game, but it’s hard to not wonder just how different the series could have been if Vogel had put Hibbert in with 2.9 seconds left.

Of course in the alternate universe where Vogel inserts Hibbert for the final play of Game 1 and he stops LeBron from making the game winning shot, Game 2 turns out differently and so on and so forth. So what exactly went right for the Pacers in this year’s playoffs?

  • Paul George played LeBron James really well throughout the series:

Paul George: 19 ppg, 6 rpg, 3 apg, 1 stock per game (steals+blocks, Bill Simmons TM), 4.5 TOs

LeBron James: 29 ppg, 7 rpg, 5 apg, 3 stocks per, 3 TOs

Yes, LeBron has the clear edge in every statistical category, but remember this is the best player of the generation entering the height of his powers and George just turned 23 years old and has worked his effing ass off to get to where he is now.

  • George hit a gigantic three pointer to force overtime in Game 1 and made three free throws to give the Pacers a one point lead with 2.9 seconds left in the same game. He had a monster dunk over Birdman, Birdman and had an all-around impressive six game stretch. This series was truly the emergence of Paul George.
  • Roy Hibbert averaged a double-double 22 ppg, 10 rpg and was just as impressive as George.
  • Lance Stephenson provided the other gear that Indiana needs on fast breaks, but his irrational confidence is a huge red flag.
  • Derrick Rose missed the entire season.
  • The Hawks are the Hawks.
  • Tyson Chandler either hit the big man wall or was really hobbled by multiple injuries.
  • Carmelo Anthony’s shoulder slowly disintegrated as the playoffs wore on.
  • JR Smith was never the same after his one game suspension in the Celtics series.
  • Dwyane Wade aged 15 basketball years in the playoffs.
  • The Chris Bosh at center chemistry experiement blew up.
  • Shane Battier’s body finally broke down.
  • Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem became the second and third most important players on Miami’s roster.
  • LeBron actually said he had to go into “Cleveland mode” during the series, which basically sums up the play of his teammates.
  • Not one of the Pacers starters were slowed down by an injury during the entire playoffs.

The Pacers put up an incredible fight against the Heat, but received quite a few breaks along the way. The last bullet point is the most important of all. Throughout the ECF, the Pacers starters had to stay away from foul trouble, let alone injuries. Long periods of time that featured DJ Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough, Ian Mahinmi, Sam Young and/or Gerald Green were death traps for Vogel. He needed all of his starters to stay as close to 100% as possible and outside of David West’s respiratory virus in Game 6, he got his wish.

Think about how many playoff teams were seriously affected by injuries this year. Rajon Rondo changes the Celtics arch in the playoffs. The Thunder could have pushed the Spurs out of the playoffs for the second straight year, or at least to a Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals with Russell Westbrook. George Karl can run his dangerous spread em’ out small ball lineup to match the Warriors if Danilo Gallinari doesn’t blow out his left knee. The Bulls have a totally different trajectory with Derrick Rose.

Staying healthy is the exception, not the rule.

I’ve yet to mention the Pacers leading scorer from last season Danny Granger who missed all but five games this season. He does fit a huge gap the Pacers currently have, which is a scoring threat off of the bench, but what happens when/if his body starts to feel better and he wants to play 30 minutes a night instead of 20. Players suddenly have different roles. The rotations become different and Vogel now has to find a way to make it work. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but the dynamic that brought the Pacers to the bring of an NBA Finals no longer exists.

The Pacers fan base deserves to be excited, but let’s not paint the season review with pretty colors and smiley faces. The ultimate prize in the sport was one win away, who knows when they’re going to get that chance again. All of the right pieces fell into place for the Pacers this season, next year they might not be so fortunate.

Follow me on twitter @Scottdargis

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