Welcome Back to the NBA Playoffs, Indiana Pacers

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Fans in Area 55 weren’t going to be left out in the cold.

The rowdiest spectators in Conseco Fieldhouse remained in the Roy Hibbert-sponsored section well after the final buzzer of the Indiana Pacers’ 136-112 rout of the Washington Wizards to watch the final minutes of the Orlando Magic’s overtime victory against the Charlotte Bobcats on the arena’s jumbo screen.

And sure enough, those fans were the first to know their team had clinched its first berth in the NBA playoffs since the 2005-06 season.

By Drew Allen

The Pacers entered the evening bearing in mind the magic number two; in other words, they needed two things to happen to reach the postseason: two wins or one win and a loss by ninth-place Charlotte. With the latter combination rounding out the events of last night’s NBA action, the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference have been locked into the playoffs.

And yes, Indiana is one of them.

So what does it mean?

  • Larry Bird’s three-year plan came through. When Larry Bird took the reins of the Pacers from former CEO Donnie Walsh in 2008, the basketball legend spoke of implementing a “three-year plan” to restore the franchise’s image and get it back to the postseason. While Bird hit the former hard and heavy that summer with two aggressive trades that altered the entire makeup of the roster, the team did not win enough to reach the playoffs despite being competitive on a nightly basis. Bird’s acquisition of point guard T.J. Ford did not work out, but his trade two years later for Darren Collison looks to have shored the position for the foreseeable future. Bird’s hand-picked coach, Jim O’Brien, did well to shape up players off the court, but with questionable rotations and too many losses, he ultimately did not see the three-year plan through and was fired earlier this season. Interim coach Frank Vogel has altered the Pacers’ appearance once again, though stylistically in this instance. Indiana, which was known for its fast-paced, high-scoring, 3-point-shooting offense under O’Brien, has been much more of an inside-out team under the 37-year-old Vogel, as can be evidenced by the growth of center Hibbert and power forwards Tyler Hansbrough and Josh McRoberts. A subject of much scrutiny as Pacers president, Bird might not have accomplished his three-year plan exactly how he envisioned it, but he saw it done nonetheless.
  • Danny Granger now can lead a team in the playoffs. After breaking out in the 2008-09 season by being named an All-Star and the NBA’s Most Improved Player, forward Danny Granger appeared well on his way to becoming the Pacers’ next franchise centerpiece. However, injuries, inconsistent production and lackluster defense plagued the New Orleans native the next two seasons and caused many to question whether Granger really was the one to lead Indiana back to respectability and title contention. Granger now has the opportunity to silence critics with a solid performance in the playoffs, the last time in which he participated was his rookie season when he came off the bench. He certainly looked like he meant business Wednesday against the Wizards, scoring 25 points on 7-of-11 shooting after being held to 20 points or less in five consecutive games. If making the postseason can motivate Granger to put his young team on his back, perhaps observers might back off asking whether the six-year veteran has maxed out.
  • Vogel has a stronger case for the full-time job. Most people assumed Vogel merely would close out what was shaping up to be another lost season for the Pacers. As soon as the organization dismissed O’Brien, the rumor mill started turning with names of potential long-term replacements, including former Pacers assistant and Cleveland coach Mike Brown and former Pacers guard and current ESPN commentator Mark Jackson, as well as with potential successors to Bird — former Portland GM Kevin Pritchard and, recently, Donnie Walsh and his preferred right-hand man Chris Mullin in what would be a comeback story for both men. But as he predicted in his first press conference as interim coach, Vogel has guided the Pacers to the playoffs after a 19-16 improvement on what was then O’Brien’s dooming 17-27 record. Not only has Vogel gotten Indiana back into the postseason and done so by executing the exact opposite strategies his mentor conducted; he has gained the respect of his players, who have taken care of more of their business against lesser squads in addition to challenging all the playoff-caliber teams as of late. Obviously, Vogel’s job security depends largely on what Bird decides to do after the season; a new regime in the front office could opt for their own guy. But after the job he has done, I would believe Vogel has secured at least an interview for the Pacers’ head coaching job full-time, and if the team makes enough noise in the playoffs, he very well could get the gig.

Another warming side story is that veterans with expiring contracts like Mike Dunleavy, who has never been to the playoffs in his nine-year career, and Jeff Foster, the last remaining link to the Pacers team that went to the 2000 NBA Finals, could end their tenures with the franchise on a high note after enduring a tumultuous era in Indiana. 

It’s obviously also great news for the Pacers fans, especially the ones who have stuck with the team through essentially a dark age dating back to the Dec. 2004 brawl at The Palace of Auburn Hills and Reggie Miller’s retirement after that season. No matter how Indiana fares, its making the playoffs again could provide hope that perhaps the days of declining attendance and overall apathy of Indianapolis toward the franchise could be nearing an end.

A likely first-round series with division rivals, the first-place Chicago Bulls, could be interesting. The Bulls boast the league’s probable MVP in point guard Derrick Rose as well as a stingy frontcourt featuring Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, but they don’t really have another lethal wing player with whom Granger, Dunleavy, Paul George and Brandon Rush can’t match up. If the Pacers can shoot efficiently and limit Rose, they certainly could steal a game or two.

For now, though, I’m sure Indiana is just glad to be back.

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