As third parties have banded about all kinds of system-related ideas in light of the lockout, I’ve seen the 2010-2011 Indiana Pacers, who finished the regular season with a 37-45 record, categorically used as evidence in support of an altered playoff system. As much as I understand the sentiment that teams so far under .500 shouldn’t be able to compete in the postseason, I feel as though that notion ignores a tremendously important fact: despite their regular season record, the Pacers actually played quite well in their first round series against the Chicago Bulls.
That series only lasted five games, but the first four were decided by a total of 20 points; each and every one of those initial four contests went down to the wire, with the Pacers falling because of their inability to manufacture points against Chicago’s late-game defense. The games were competitive and intriguing, to a degree that makes me legitimately curious if the current playoff system’s harshest critics were able to tune in to see one of the league’s most understated young teams do battle with a finished product. It’s something we often forget when discussing the NBA’s up-and-comers; Indiana may not be able to match the terrific potential of a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the Pacers have nonetheless amassed a group of quality players that just so happen to be climbing toward their basketball primes.
Danny Granger, in an interview with Zach Lowe for SI.com’s The Point Forward blog, talked about the Pacers’ youth, and the team’s late-game performance in those tightly contested games — games that weren’t supposed to be so competitive, and games that, according to the aforementioned dissenting group, shouldn’t have involved the Pacers in the first place:
SI.com: You guys pushed the Bulls in the first round. Four of the five games were really close. But one theme that kept popping up was the trouble you guys had scoring down the stretch. What happened?
Granger: I think that was our immaturity. I agree with what you say happened. We didn’t execute or run our plays the way we wanted. A lot of it had to do with the Bulls having the best defense in the league. But we have to be able to produce plays in crunch time.
SI.com: The team ran a lot of pick-and-rolls down the stretch of those games — you screening for Darren Collison, you taking a screen from Roy Hibbert and other combinations. But the numbers say you guys were one of the least efficient pick-and-roll teams in the league. How can you get better?
Granger: It’s just a matter of working it in. To be an effective pick-and-roll team, you have to have good decision-makers. I’m not saying that we didn’t have them, but I think we were just inexperienced in that scenario. We switched coaches during the middle of the season, and we switched our whole offense to implement more pick-and-rolls. Frank Vogel did a good job getting us on the same page, but you have to remember: In that series, we started Paul George, who was a rookie. Tyler Hansbrough was basically a rookie, since he was hurt his first year. Darren Collison was in his second year. Roy Hibbert is young.
Considering how closely Indiana kept pace with one of the league’s top teams, do the ends justify the playoff structuring means in this instance? Not solely; there’s no question that the Houston Rockets (43-39), Phoenix Suns (40-42), and even Utah Jazz (39-43) were screwed over by playing in the deeper Western Conference. The fact that the series was entertaining and competitive doesn’t really do much for the players on any of those three squads, who all were cut off after 82 games despite posting better records than Indiana.
But consider those quotes from Granger. That Bulls-Pacers first round series wasn’t exactly an all-timer, but it was pretty special nonetheless. The team that shouldn’t have qualified for the postseason played as valiantly as one could possibly hope, and though decision-making issues really did end up being their downfall, we were still able to witness a fun, young roster legitimately compete against an elite club. Maybe that result doesn’t justify the process in itself, but it should at least factor into our retrospective analysis of it.
Essentially, there were two lessons to be learned from that hotly contested series. First, that Indiana wasn’t just the team that lost 45 games and yet still managed to secure a playoff spot. They’re also the team that tested the top-seeded Chicago Bulls much sooner than expected, and — along with the Memphis Grizzlies — represent the potential of No. 8 seeds, even in this allegedly broken system, to cause some mayhem. The conference playoff structure may not be perfect, but in this case it created a commendable product undeserving of criticism or ire. Second, that the only way to frame the Pacers’ struggles is in the context of their youth. Indiana may have been unable to execute down the stretch against Chicago, but the series still showcased a dynamic Pacers roster with plenty of talent and lots of potential for further growth.