Bring on the Heat! (or the Knicks)

http://youtube.com/watch?v=9WDY_O5LKEw

If Pacers fans want to say that the team’s 4-1 first round loss to the Bulls last year was closer than the numbers suggested, then they must also accept that the Pacers’ 4-1 victory over the Magic, accomplished several hours ago, was a pretty close call as well.

Not to say the Pacers were not clearly the better team. They were. Without Dwight Howard, this Magic squad was supposed to be cannon fodder, but to the credit of their players and coach Stan Van Gundy, they fought unbelievably hard and had Pacers fans such as myself sweating bullets much more often than we would have liked. 

In the end — 

Game 1: 81-77 (Magic)

Game 2: 93-78 (Pacers)

Game 3: 97-74 (Pacers)

Game 4: 101-99 OT (Pacers)

Game 5: 105-87 (Pacers)

– the scorelines show only 2 close games, but in reality all games had their moments and were close until at least the third quarter. 

In the close-out game, Game 5, the Pacers once again raced out to an early lead but as usual allowed the Magic back into the game. While they usually broke open the game in the third, it was the Magic who put the foot on the gas this time, turning a 3 point halftime deficit into a 2 point lead heading into the fourth. At that stage, I was convinced that we were heading to a dangerous Game 6, and potentially a frightening Game 7.

Instead, Darren Collison happened, and the Pacers dominated 36-16 in the final quarter to finish off the Magic. Collison, who lost his starting job to George Hill towards the end of the season while recovering from a groin injury, was sensational, going 7-7 from the field and dishing out 4 big assists. For the game, Collison had 19 and 6. For the series, he had 23 assists against a single turnover.

The biggest contributor in Game 5 was no doubt Collison, but like every other game this series, it was a complete team effort. David West was a rock and a beast. Roy Hibbert swatted shots and protected the middle. Granger missed a lot but was a fearless leader who also hit a lot. Paul George had a disappointing series scoring-wise but did a lot of other little things. Every guy that played contributed in some way.

But still, this was also often a really frustrating series, marred by lapses in concentration, poor ball handling, being outhustled, bad shots and questionable coaching decisions. The Pacers wanted to be a grind it out kind of team and they have been, and it hasn’t always been pretty. In fact, it was sometimes very ugly this series. Call it a learning experience for a young team still trying to find its identity.

And now, the Pacers have their first series win since 2005, the year Reggie Miller retired. Oh yes, and it’s the first series win for a Pacers team that doesn’t have Miller on its roster. Isn’t that crazy?

Celebrations are likely to be shortlived, becase a stark reality awaits them next round. Although coach Vogel and the players don’t want to admit it, they are going to be facing the Miami Heat in the next round, a team that most believe will simply cruise through to the Finals, if not the championship (I know, I know, they said that last year too).

The Pacers will be a bigger underdog against the Heat than they were favorites against the Magic. It’s going to be that kind of a series, where everyone will have to play their best for the team to have a chance in any game, and sometimes even that’s not going to be enough. But hey, given all the injuries that have happened this year (not to say I am wishing an injury on any Heat player), anything is possible if something unfortunate does end up happening to a key player or two.

As daunting as the challenge ahead of them seems, I kinda like the predicament the Pacers are in right now. I prefer them as the underdogs because I know they will be fighting and clawing all the way, and if they’ve learned a thing or two from the Magic team they’ve just eliminated, they should be pretty tough to deal with for the talented Heat. Even if they get blown away, I’d like to hope that they’d take a lot away from finally reaching round 2 after all these years.

I’ll hold off any predictions for now out of respect for the Knicks. Stay tuned. 

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