Only the most diehard Indiana Pacers fans expected the team to beat the New York Knicks and send ’Melo & Co. into an early offseason. Teams don’t advance in the NBA playoffs without stars, and the Pacers don’t have what anybody would consider a “star.”
Neither Lance Stephenson, George Hill, Paul George, David West nor Roy Hibbert is a candidate for the “Dream Team,” and even Indiana’s best player, the injured Danny Granger, isn’t among the NBA’s elite.
Yet with a roster of no-names, the Pacers are still alive in the NBA playoffs; the Knicks, their star-studded lineup and all their big money are not, dispatched with the other also-rans to wait for next season.
Even if the Knicks had survived, no one could imagine they would beat LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Can anybody predict the Pacers doing any better?
Predictions are never safe bets. No casino in Vegas is going bankrupt because of the heavy hits sports betting puts on balance sheets. The certain is never certain, not when gifted athletes step into an arena.
As improbable as it seems, the Pacers do have a chance Tuesday night when the Eastern Conference Finals open in Miami. They have a chance for the same reason the Dallas Mavericks had a chance when they stopped the James Gang in the NBA Finals two seasons ago: A team is better than a collection of stars.
Look at the pieces coach Frank Vogel, himself a man with no reputation behind him, has assembled. Vogel has a lot of solid, interchangeable parts, and he’s also gotten his Pacers to play with pluck and grit. He’s coached them to play with the mean streak of an NHL team, which means his Pacers aren’t a team to be trifled with.
They are conceding nothing, not to the team people have penciled in to repeat as NBA champions, not to the player whom some are daring to compare to Michael Jordan. To Vogel, the Heat are the next team in his way, not one thing more.
Cockiness can be an endearing quality when a man has the goods to back it up. Sports fans see that in Floyd Mayweather, whose brashness reminds those who still watch the “sweet science” of Muhammad Ali.
But in team sports, players and coaches tend to put the boasting in mothballs. They fear creating headlines that might awaken the fire inside an opponent. That has always been a curious way to approach a big game. What kind of a fire does a team need when it finds itself a step closer to a championship?
Vogel needs no one to tell him of this. He knows the Heat well; his Pacers lost to Miami in the NBA semifinals last season. In some ways, Vogel might now be trying to lift some of the pressure off his players. He wants to shoulder the burden.
That’s noble of Vogel, but can a coach’s seat on the bench in a tailored suit do anything to help stop LeBron? What will help Vogel is his ability to get Stephenson, Hill, George, Hibbert, West and a deep bench to play harder and better than they played against New York.
If Vogel can coax such a performance, the Pacers have a puncher’s chance. If he can’t, they will be joining ’Melo and the Knicks in watching the Heat march toward a second NBA title.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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