That the Pacers were in a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals with a young team — one that had to adapt on the fly to losing their leading scorer from last year Danny Granger just days before the season started — is more than just a bright sign for the future.
Monday night sucked for Pacers fans, but they have to know the next few years will not. This is a good team.
Through adversity teams grow — and Indiana has grown into one of the NBA’s best teams. Next season their core will be back , their defense will improve with familiarity and they will grow from this experience.
“We’ve gone through a lot, with Danny being out from the beginning of the season,” Roy Hibbert said in his televised post game interview. “David (West), Paul (George) and George (Hill) really stepped up and we won a lot of games. They matured, we finished strong toward the end of the season and we had one heck of a run.
“It’s unfortunate we lost, but I couldn’t be more proud of this team.”
Teams need to learn to win in the NBA (even Michael Jordan had to get his head handed to him three straight years by the Pistons before he and his teammates learned what it took to win it all). Monday night was one of those lessons, about reaching another level when it is all on the line. These lessons are a punch to the gut, but the best teams grow from them. Miami didn’t fully adopt the small-ball style that got them a title last year and back to the finals this year until Chris Bosh went down against the Pacers in the playoffs last year. Then they did it out of necessity.
Injuries can help a team define who they really need to be. That seemed to happen to the Pacers this season.
The loss of Granger meant Paul George got thrust into a bigger role as the ball handler and primary scorer — and he thrived, putting together his best season as a pro and becoming the league’s Most Improved Player. Then the playoffs became his national coming out party — a guy who played his college ball in little-watched Fresno and his professional ball in small market Indiana burst on the national scene. LeBron James was praising him. He looked like a future MVP.
George Hill took another step forward as the versatile if untraditional point guard. Roy Hibbert struggled early in the season — a combination of a wrist injury and self-imposed pressure after getting a max contract — but by the end of the season and certainly through the playoffs he looked like a center deserving a max deal.
David West is a pro’s pro that gives this team steady professionalism, not to mention steady points and rebounds. He’s a free agent but said after the game he can’t imagine himself anywhere else, and the Pacers plan to bring him back.
There are certainly questions for the Pacers this summer.
West is a free agent and while both sides are saying all the right things a deal still needs to be worked out (and other teams will try to poach him). George is eligible for an extension for his rookie deal and you can expect a four-year max (which would not kick in until the season after next).
But if the Pacers are paying Hibbert and George and West, can they continue to pay Danny Granger and stay under the tax line?
Also, the Pacers need to find depth — in the playoffs their starting five (Hill, George, Lance Stephenson, West, Hibbert) played 415 minutes and were an average of +14.6 per 48 minutes. But their bench lineups were a disaster and so none played more than 35 minutes all postseason. This is really two years in a row the lack of depth has been an issue in Indiana — they need to find some quality depth. Guys coach Frank Vogel can put out on the court and not instantly feel like he needs a single-malt scotch to calm his nerves.
But the core of a contender is there, and that is the hard part to put together. And it’s a young core, one that will just get better and better the more they play together.
Which should make Pacers fans very happy. And the rest of the East very nervous.