As the Miami Heat blew open the Game 7 Eastern Conference showdown with the Indiana Pacers, predictably, my social media realm blew up and the anger spilled out.
One commenter said the Pacers had “laid down.” Another said they played with “no heart.” A third claimed Miami “wanted it more.” Yet another offered that their play was “a shame.”
It is all nonsense, of course. The Heat played better, defended better, executed better, took care of the basketball better, rebounded better and got more good performances from more players.
They played like a been-there-done-that team.
These were the defending NBA champions, the team that won 66 games in the regular season, didn’t lose back-to-back games for five months, and steamrolled into the conference finals with eight victories in nine games.
The Pacers have nothing of which to be ashamed. They did not lie down or play without heart (and, please, I want someone to define exactly what both those terms mean).
But you know what? The in-the-moment anger of their fans is a good thing.
It shows they care. And it shows that the Pacers once again matter.
After all, it wasn’t that long ago that a loss elicited little more than a shrug.
This time, it was quite the joy ride. A reprise of both Hicks versus Knicks and a racers-Pacers doubleheader. Few, outside of Indy, anyway, thought the Pacers would take the Heat to the wall but they did, capped by a Game Six victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse that was reminiscent of the Market Square Arena heydays, minus Leo Sayer’s version of Long Tall Glasses.
My ears are still ringing.
So we look ahead and you are already familiar with the to-do list for basketball prez Donnie Walsh and General Manager Kevin Pritchard: re-sign free agent David West, make some deals to bolster the bench, and await the return of Danny Granger.
It sounds easy. It won’t be.
West—and, especially, his agent—will be looking to cash in on his last big contract. Upgrading the bench requires horse-trading, contract-matching and finding players who are OK with making a big splash—and potentially chasing a championship ring—in a small market.
One bench upgrade—Lance Stephenson to the second unit, a role he said he is prepared to embrace—is likely dependent upon the availability of Granger. And, quite frankly and even though he says his rehabilitation is going well, there are no guarantees that Granger will resume his career or reach the level of his pre-injury play.
In the meantime, the marketing folks will be going into overdrive, trying to capitalize on the Pacers’ re-found popularity among the masses. Central Indiana has largely sat on its hands—or, rather, its wallets—with regard to the Pacers, even as they evolved into a contending franchise.
The love affair has been rekindled. Deep playoff runs tend to do that.
And while we’re at it, let’s pause to take stock of where we are in total. The Colts are coming off an unexpected playoff berth and the future is exceedingly bright with Andrew Luck as the quarterback. The Indiana Fever have begun defense of their WNBA championship.
The Indianapolis Indians are leading their division in the American Association and continuing to provide the quintessential baseball experience. Butler University has bounced into the big leagues of intercollegiate athletics. Professional soccer is on its way and—yes, Mayor—cricket, too. To reiterate last week’s column, the Indy 500—despite overall problems—has delivered three blockbuster races in a row.
Yes, we can get angry over the Pacers’ not getting to the NBA Finals—and those 15 first-half turnovers had me pounding my fist and yelling at the television—but the big picture is that the entities in which we have invested so heavily are delivering the kind of product we demand in return.
I recall an interview I had with Donnie Walsh in the darkest days, three months after The Brawl.
He vowed that the franchise’s reputation would be restored and that, “there will be a point in time where we again will have the right value system and will win a championship.”
It didn’t seem possible then.
It does seem possible now.
Welcome back, Pacers. You’re relevant again, and it’s OK to be both damn mad and damn glad about it.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.