Pacers reach critical time to showcase character

When the team you’re cheering for is getting clobbered, as the Indiana Pacers were Tuesday night, it’s easy to miss some of the nuances of the game.

I hope local residents watching the Miami Heat run the Pacers out of American Airlines Arena were paying close attention Tuesday. I know it would have been easy to tune out after the first half. But if you did, you might have missed the most important part of the game.

For five plus years, the locals here have been screaming for Pacers owner Herb Simon and player personnel boss Larry Bird to build a team with character.

Despite the clubbing, some of Bird’s finest work was on display last night, and during this series.

Is this team a championship contender? Maybe not. Not this year anyway. But it’s a lot closer than most folks around the NBA thought. The Pacers have certainly been a lot tougher on the court than the Heat anticipated.

But when the crucible of competition got fired up, it would have been easy for one of this team’s most defining characteristics—the one locals have been screaming for most—to have melted away. It did not.

When Tyler Hansbrough got needlessly mugged by Udonis Haslem in the second quarter Tuesday night, he reacted with disgust, but he didn’t react by shouting or punching at Haslem. In many NBA games—and certainly on most playgrounds—a move like that would have ignited a full-on brawl.

The Pacers stood true to their character. Did Hansbrough foul Dwyane Wade hard earlier in the quarter? Yes. But it was a hard foul in the spirit of the game, not in the spirit of trying to hurt Wade.

Has Danny Granger been feisty this series? Guilty as charged. But again, in the spirit of the game. Has Roy Hibbert tenaciously guarded the basket and given a couple of hard fouls? Again, yes, but within the parameters of the game.

Did Lance Stephenson show a lack of class during game three when he made a choking sign as LeBron James missed a free throw? I’ll give you that. Though I didn’t think it was that egregious. I think Reggie Miller’s choking gestures in Madison Square Garden more than a decade ago was much more dramatic.

Still, Stephenson did what people in this market would expect. He, along with Pacers Coach Frank Vogel, apologized for the gesture.

OK, that issue is dead, right? Not according to Jowan Howard, the Miami bench warmer and self-appointed Heat rules enforcer and NBA-knower-of-all-things-right when it comes to player conduct.

Howard pursued Stephenson after the game, at practice the next day and at a shoot-around three days later to let him know just how wrong he was to mock King James.

Really? Howard of all people should not lecture folks on conduct. If you need a refresher course on his behavior, check out ESPN’s documentary about the University of Michigan Fab Five.

And let’s not forget that Stephenson, one of Bird’s pet projects, is 22 years old. Young people make mistakes. The best we can hope is that they recognize those mistakes and apologize for them.

Howard is 39 years old, for crying out loud. Isn’t he a little beyond these antics? Apparently not.

And apparently Howard and his appointed group of hit men didn’t feel they had made their point sharply enough to Stephenson. So when the Pacers were down by more than 20 and with only a few seconds left in Tuesday’s game, the 6-11, 285-pound Dexter Pitman hit the 220-pound Stephenson with a forearm to the throat that should have made fans of both teams shiver.

The hit was a gruesome display and if it doesn’t get Pitman a suspended for at least three games, I’d be surprised.

But again, Stephenson and the rest of the Pacers showed poise and restraint in the face of such violence.

It would be easy for the Pacers to seek revenge during game six at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Thursday. But it would be just that easy to unravel all the hard-earned goodwill Simon, Bird, the coaches and players have built up in this town over the last three years.

Revenge may be viewed as sweet in some markets, but here we expect more of our role model professional athletes.

On Sunday afternoon, more than one in three central Indiana households watching television were tuned in to game four. That’s about 200,000 households, or about 400,000 people.

I expect Bankers Life Fieldhouse to be packed Thursday and throngs to be gathered around TV sets from Terre Haute to Richmond and Bloomington to Lafayette.

The eyes of central Indiana are on the Pacers in numbers they haven’t been since 2000. The way they play could go a long way to selling tickets and boosting this team’s fortunes well beyond this year.

It’s a good time for the Pacers to step up and play like the champions they want to be. It’s also a time to play the way their creator—I’m referring to Bird here—promised they would.

This is the time for the Pacers, whether in victory or defeat, to show fans yet again they are a team of honor, integrity and above all else—character.

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