The Indiana Pacers defeated the Miami Heat 94-75 on Thursday night to take a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals. There are some things that are easy to grab onto to explain the win. Roy Hibbert finally punished the a small, depleted front court in the playoffs the way people have been expecting, posting a ri-damn-diculous line of 19 points, 18 rebounds, and 5 blocks. Dwyane Wade played a game that could only be described with terms like “horrific,” “gruesome,” or “craptacular.” And there was the blowout-inducing third quarter: after slapping Miami 28 to 14 coming out of the locker room on Tuesday night, Indy hung a 26-to-12 third quarter on the Heat last night.
But there was something more.
Before the game, I had no idea what was going to happen. I had a vague sense that rebounding would matter, but beyond that, I had no feel for anything about the game. Prior to tip off, I told a couple of guys that I had never watched a team so much, or knew so much about a team, without completely understanding them. I had never seen a team that so constantly grew or consistently surprised me.
So while all of those factors outlined above were critical to the outcome of the game, and will rightfully be discussed, the following is what I saw.
- Dahntay Jones scores 5 points, forces a fun Wade travel by pulling the chair, and leads a second-unit charge that closes the deficit from 9 points to 2 in the first 3 minutes of the second quarter.
- With the return of LeBron James in the quarter, Miami pushes the lead out to 5 and threatens to make it more. However, after a couple of stops, George Hill delivers 7 straight points to push the Pacers ahead. Hill finishes the quarter with 9, and even when he screwed up — giving up a sloppy turnover at half court — he atoned by blocking Shane Battier’s apparent breakaway layup. The Pacers and Heat went to the half tied at 43.
- By the start of the third quarter, there was plenty of criticism to be leveled at the Pacer wings. Once again, Paul George and Danny Granger had been non-factors offensively, combining to shoot 2-for-9 from the floor and score 7 points over the first 24 minutes. In the third, the tandem had 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting, including hitting 3 of 4 treys. By the time they were done, the Pacers were up 14 points, and the Heat were reeling.
- The fourth quarter saw Darren Collison do damage early, and George Hill make an encore performance, scoring 11 points as the Pacers cruised home.
And through it all, there was Roy Hibbert. There was energy and disruption from Tyler Hansbrough, Leandro Barbosa, and Lou Amundson. There was the third quarter scoring and fire from Danny Granger. There was Paul George lurking in passing lanes. There was George Hill sticking shot after every stretch of play when you start to question whether or not he should actually be playing poing guard. There was the leadership of the increasingly unshakeable David West, who threw in 14 points and 9 rebounds for good measure.
And this is what I finally understood: this team was built to be a team.
Now, I realize that statement is — in and of itself — completely without value. But it really is true, and I can’t really think of any other way to put it. The Pacers aren’t built “around” anyone. They are built on top of each other.
“There’s no ‘right’ way [to build a team],” Dahntay Jones responded when asked about the uniquely balanced makeup of the Pacers. “We are a team. The Dallas Mavericks were a team: a collective unit that passes the ball well, plays great team defense. That’s what we try to model ourselves after.”
While the 2010-11 Mavericks are great role models for any team, they aren’t a great corollary for this Pacer team. The Mavs got a lot of contributions from a lot of guys, but they also all clearly coalesced around the historically elite talents of Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki may not be mentioned in the same breath with LeBron James or Dwight Howard, but he’s one of the top ten players in the world. And during the playoffs last season, he was likely the planet’s best.
Truth be told, I struggle to find an apt example of what Indiana is becoming.
The Spurs certainly are and have been a paragon of teamwork, but they remain built around Tim Duncan — arguably the best player of his generation — and two other superstars in Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Perhaps the Pistons of a few years ago are a reasonable comparison, but even that may not exactly parallel these Pacers.
Frank Vogel wasn’t surprised by his players taking turns picking up the team up tonight. “It’s who we’ve been all year,” he said. “It’s a different guy every night — a different guy every possession. When ball movement is your best friend, and you let the defense and ball movement dictate who gets the shots — and nobody cares who gets the shots — then it can be somebody different every single time.”
That statement runs counter to conventional wisdom. Hell, it’s outright heresy. What coach in his right mind would speak of the defense dictating who on his team gets shots as a good thing? Isn’t a good team supposed to exert its own will on the defense?
And it does underscore potential problems. The Pacers have lost two games thus far in the playoffs. In one, they failed to score for the final four minutes. In the second, they scored only one point over the final four-and-a-half minutes. Having no go-to guy has been the refrain. However, I was once told that every strength is also a weakness. That idiom may apply to the Pacers: the strength of having so many players who contribute is that they need almost all of them to contribute all the time to reach their peak.
And that may not be a sustainable model. We don’t know yet. The Pacers still have not accomplished anything. “It’s just Game 3,” said David West after last night’s win. He’s right. They’re up 2-1 in a series where you need four wins to advance. As impressive as the victory was, there’s absolutely no guarantee that it won’t be Indiana’s last win of the season.
But that’s really not all that important in this conversation. This is about understanding who the Indiana Pacers are, and taking a moment to appreciate how unique this team is.
I asked David West if the design of the Indiana Pacers made it harder for people to recognize how or why they’re good. “Yeah, I think so,” said West. “This is an ‘individual’ league, in terms of media success.”
It has certainly caused me to consistently underestimate them.
“We do have guys that are capable of putting up high-caliber numbers,” West continued. “And guys that do that on any given night. We rely on that. We rely on our depth.”
And you hear that a lot from Pacers’ players.
You hear that from everybody in the league, too.
On most teams, however, you usually hear comments like this after they win a game by stealing a few minutes or getting a few points from an unexpected source on a random regular season game in February. But on this Pacers team, who exactly can even be considered an unexpected source anymore? I am not remotely kidding when I tell you that there are seven players on this team — the five starters, Darren Collison and Leandro Barbosa — who are candidates for having a final shot drawn up for them. And succeeding.
“We rely on the ability of each individual to make our collective better,” said West.
It sounds cliché, but it’s the truth.
Every ounce of success the Pacers have had this year comes from the team. They’re all heroes, or they’re all goats. They win together. They lose together. I’ve been watching team sports for close to 40 years now, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.