Indiana Pacers swept: What to learn from defeat

Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

Gold may not quit, but it can be hammered flat. An eventful Indiana Pacers season was swept shut on Easter Sunday by the Boston Celtics. Now what, if anything, can be taken away from this?

“What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 1:9

A long time ago, ancient history for some, a wisp of the wind for others, the Indiana Pacers played the Boston Celtics in the playoffs and lost. It was 1991, it took five games.

The rosters were flush with names you’d recognize. The Celtics were led by a fella named Larry Bird (in his eleventh season) and Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale. Games at Market Square Arena looked like algae in the sea, such was the green sported by the vast supporters of Bird. The underdog Pacers trotted out a 25-year old Reggie Miller flanked by Detlef Schrempf and Rik Smits.

The playoff hero was none of those three, but the Rifleman, Chuck Person. When the Pacers won Game 4 in Indianapolis, it was Person who had the 30-point game and walked off to the standing ovation.

When Person roamed off of the Market Square floor, he headed, via the tunnel, through a curtain of adulation and toward imminent defeat. Although competitive, Indiana would fall by 3 points to the Celtics in that final game.

The whole series was close. Indiana had had their moments and squandered them. It was the second consecutive trip to the playoffs by the new-look Indiana Pacers, and their second-straight first round exit. Indiana would lose, in a first-round sweep, to Boston again the next year, then in a gentlemen’s sweep by the Knicks in the year following. Optimism one year transformed into drudgery the next, the mountain seemed like it wouldn’t be summited.

Sound familiar?

The big picture

Nowadays we aren’t the most patient, are we? We like to eschew big pictures and lessons from the past in favor of right now and the lessons of a few moments back. It’s why generational talents enter the draft every season, or dozens of prospects are labeled “elite” each year.

It’s also why reactions to defeat (and to a lesser degree victory) explode so violently. Fire so and so, cut tweedle-dee, trade away tweedle-dum, blow this team up. The cycle can be savage and aimless. And some of you will get your wish.

Change to some degree is coming: your favorite scapegoat may very well be sent out into the desert this offseason. But before we set up the gallows let’s take stock.

The Indiana Pacers we saw in the Boston series was exactly the Indiana Pacers we saw over the last three months. Pugnacious? For sure. Competitive? At times, yes. But too many times they were a sprinter running a marathon, or an IndyCar without sixth gear: limited.

The Pacers had the third seed in hand, and squandered it, even as neither Boston nor Philadelphia stood up to rip it away. The Pacers had the fourth seed and squandered it; could’ve all but sealed up homecourt at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 5, in a building whose homecourt advantage is supposedly imposing and creep meekly into the night at the hands of the Celtics. Then the Pacers played well in the playoffs against Boston, had leads in every game, and squandered them, always finding a landmine to step on, an anvil to walk under, or rocks to throw at, and miss, barns.

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  • The Indiana Pacers also played without their best player and spiritual leader, whose reputation was built not only on preventing leads from being squandered but also to ensure that an opponent’s lead is never safe. Losing Victor Oladipo to injury, in the end, proved fatal to the Pacers 2019 season. There were plenty of moments when the ball would have gone to him, but there was no him to give it to. Indiana, of course, kept a stiff upper lip and battled admirably on, but, as evidenced in the Boston series, the Pacers were just missing a certain je ne sais quois: whose name is Victor Oladipo.
  • There were however a lot of positives to take away from the season, and even from the series. Few teams could survive the loss of an Oladipo, as well as Indiana, did. Domantas Sabonis delivered one of the best seasons ever played by a third-year center. Myles Turner blossomed as one of the best rim-protectors in the league. Bojan Bogdanovic emerged as a legitimate scoring option, carrying the offense in Oladipo’s absence. Thaddeus Young’s leadership and Darren Collison’s sure-hands proved stabilizing presences. Were there weaknesses and lapses, my goodness, of course, but the Pacers exit 2018-19 with a good foundation to build upon, however…

    Not everyone will be back, such is life with seven free agents. The average age of the Pacers signed for next season is 23 years old.

    The question moving forward, in lieu of the recent playoff exit, is how should Indiana proceed from defeat? Many acres of virtual ink will be spilled trying to first hypothesize, then analyze whatever may come. But I want to offer a lesson to consider from a time long ago, ancient history for some, a wisp of the wind for others.

    What should the Pacers do?

    In the early ’90s there was much hand-wringing over what to do with the Indiana Pacers franchise, in the face of yet another first round exit. The Pacers didn’t tank, but rather keep trudging along, trusting the plan that then Pacers president Donnie Walsh laid out. The Pacers were embodying (very loosely) the motto of a former American President Calvin Coolidge who was fond of saying — when he actually chose to say something — “It is much better to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.” That rings odd today, but there was some truth to glean out of it: terrible decisions can be irrecoverable.

    Short-sided changing because, well, dammit, we got to change something, can, and frequently does, deposit you in a worse spot than before. The Pacers of the early 90’s faced the same frustration, but preserved, they trusted their scouting department, trusted their development, made clever trades (Schrempf for Derrick McKey being an example) and that process, avoiding bad decisions, netted a decade of near-constant contention.

    Failure, if that’s too strong then “defeat”, can be a powerful teacher.

    Failure, if that’s too strong then “defeat”, can be a powerful teacher. The early sweeps laid the groundwork for future Pacers success. Same for Michael Jordan’s Bulls who lost to Detroit three times, before they could finally surpass them.

    Recently, we saw Tiger Woods emerge from the most public of reputation collapses and medical issues and win the Masters. Then Virginia, whose system was billed as ineffective on big stages, win the championship after suffering the most embarrassing loss in NCAA history the year previous.

    The Pacers, too, should do likewise. For Sabonis, being comfortable moving to his right hand is a necessity now, after Boston shut him down by sitting on his left. For Turner, confidence needs to be gained in shooting the ball, his passivity helped balloon Indiana draughts. Everyone, every single player, has the opportunity to take these lumps and come back next season, whichever jersey they wear, better.

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    If the Pacers can do that, identify their own weaknesses that were highlighted for them by the Celtics, seismic changes will be unnecessary for the Pacers to compete again at a high level. Adding a healthy Oladipo will be an incalculable boost in its own right. But, if utilized rightly, this swift end to the season can be a galvanizing force heading into next. It better be, or it will have truly been for nothing.