For eight straight seasons, LeBron James led a team to the NBA Finals. The reign of terror upon the Eastern Conference began in the 2010-11 campaign when LeBron made the controversial decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and sign with the Miami Heat. After four years and two championships, he left to return home to Cleveland.
A four-year stint in Cleveland, and four consecutive run-ins with the Golden State Warriors, concluded with LeBron heading west to the Los Angeles Lakers.
We tend to forget how dominant and innovative those Heat teams were. Playing Chris Bosh at the 5 and LeBron at the 4 helped usher in the small-ball, stretch-big transition for the entire league. Erik Spoelstra’s offenses were filled with great actions, and Pat Riley assembled a Big Three team that re-ignited the trend of franchises hoarding trios of superstars.
But what of those teams in the Eastern Conference that fell by the wayside in their wake? Without a LeBron-led dynasty, some of these squads would be in the annals of history with Finals appearances or championship banners. Instead, they serve as footnotes in a conference defined by its inferiority to the supreme talents of King James. Forgotten in particular are those from the earliest parts of the decade, the teams toppled by the excellence of the Miami Heat.
Many of those teams were close to toppling the Heat, and many impacted the evolution of basketball in ways we have to examine to understand fully. We continue our five-part series diving deep into those teams to find a new appreciation for their impact. Thus far, we’ve looked at a rising power in the Derrick Rose-led Chicago Bulls, a dying one with the original Big Three in Boston, and the one that never came to be with the Brooklyn Nets.
The series concludes with a dive into the team that actually came closest to toppling the Heat despite never was being thought of in the same category of those other elite names: the pesky Indiana Pacers.
Let’s flashback to January 30, 2011. The Indiana Pacers, struggling at 17-27, fired head coach Jim O’Brien after three-and-a-half seasons. He had led the Pacers to that middling mediocrity that franchises seek to avoid. The four seasons prior, Indiana had missed the playoffs but won over 30 games each year, ruining their shots at high draft picks.
Now, President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird would have to build this roster organically, hitting on retread free agents, shrewd trades and underrated draft prospects.
Bird believed his team was ready to fly higher than they’d been achieving despite seemingly far removed from being the franchise that made four Eastern Conference Finals appearances in the seven years between 1998 and 2004. So he dismissed O’Brien and installed assistant Frank Vogel, a former video coordinator and manager at Kentucky, to lead the charge. Among Vogel’s directives from management: give more minutes to rookie Paul George and reinstall confidence for young big man Roy Hibbert.
Both happened, and Indiana won seven of their first eight under Vogel. George played over 23 minutes a night then, compared to 16.5 per game before with over twenty DNPs mixed in. Hibbert’s splits were notable as well.
The unquestioned leader of this team was Danny Granger, however. A former All-Star, he was averaging 20.5 points per game and shooting above 38 percent from three.
Behind him, a collection of role players were scoring between eight and fourteen a night, including Darren Collison, Mike Dunleavy, Tyler Hansbrough and Brandon Rush. Granger, Vogel and a revitalized young group helped the Pacers rally to get the eight-seed before falling in five games to the Chicago Bulls.
2011-12 was a year of great growth. The lockout-shortened season saw Vogel put his stamp on this defense, elevating the group to a top-ten mark across the league. The key addition was that of veteran power forward David West, who chose to join the Pacers due to their potential. They also shipped a first-round pick (which ended up being Kawhi Leonard) to the San Antonio Spurs for point guard George Hill, an Indianapolis native who had spent three seasons as a highly-efficient backup with the Spurs and was one of the young players that helped attract West.
Offensively, the team took a balanced approach. Granger scored under twenty a night for the first time in four seasons. George, West and Hibbert all notched between twelve and thirteen while Hansbrough, Hill, Collison and Leandro Barbosa were between nine and eleven. That balance, along with a stingy defense, led the Pacers to the three-seed in the Eastern Conference.
The first notch in their belt came during a five-game smacking of the Orlando Magic. This series helped contribute to the downfall of Orlando’s reign as a top team in the Eastern Conference, who were without Dwight Howard the entire series. The Magic took Game 1 on the road, but Indy responded by winning the next four—three of which were by fifteen or more.
Waiting in the second round were LeBron James’ Miami Heat. Right off the bat, the Pacers thought they had a chance. Chris Bosh went down with an injury only sixteen minutes into the series and would not return to play. How did the Pacers respond? They won Games 2 and 3 to take a 2-1 series lead on the defending Eastern Conference Champions.
This was a stunning uprise. Game 2 was a bit chippy and went down to the wire with multiple missed free throws on both ends. Rejuvenated, the Pacers went back to Indiana and commandingly won Game 3 by nineteen. The Heat took the next three, however, breaking away and winning the series, with all wins coming by eight or more.
But the confidence was high. The Pacers saw themselves as legitimate contenders and a team that could play with the Heat. They weren’t going to back down and just needed some seasoning under their belt.
49 wins and the top-overall defense, that’s what the 2012-13 season brought the Pacers. The roster was largely the same as the season before, though Collison moved on and George Hill slid into the starting lineup. Young guard Lance Stephenson was ready for an on-court role and blossomed. DJ Augustin, Ian Mahinmi and Gerald Green joined the bench squad.
A 29-year-old Danny Granger began the season with knee issues, suffering from Patellar Tendinosis and missing over three months of action. While the injury commonly known as Jumper’s Knee doesn’t usually lead to long-term effects, Granger was never able to shake it. He played only five games, and the Pacers would enter the postseason without their top scoring option. Someone else would need to step up.
That brought the emergence of third-year pro Paul George. He averaged 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists, making his first All-Star team. He was also recognized as the NBA’s Most Improved Player and was voted to both the NBA Second-Team All-Defense and the All-NBA Third Team. George had blossomed in one year from the “star-in-waiting” to the superstar the Pacers envisioned when they drafted him.
They were better for it, too. With George at the helm, the Pacers were more dynamic. Granger was never a top-tier defender, and replacing him in the starting rotation with Lance Stephenson brought five high-caliber athletes and defenders to the forefront.
Roy Hibbert was recognized as the world’s premier rim protector, conquering the concept we now refer to as verticality so he could challenge shots without fouling. He stepped up his game in the postseason, too, averaging 17.0 points and 9.9 rebounds.
This was a team with many All-Star talents, a diverse array of offensive outputs and a collective stronger than its individual parts. If there was one group that could serve as the antithesis to the Heat, it would be them.
Indiana ran through its first two series, beating the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks in six games. Neither was particularly testing, but conquering the likes of Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks felt like a strong accomplishment at the time. The Pacers were headed to the Conference Finals where the only team waiting was their nemesis Miami Heat.
The Pacers by now were a defensive juggernaut, physical and super long. David West was as bully as a 4-man could be; He and Hibbert combined for 57 offensive rebounds in the long Miami series.
And it went the distance, too. An emotional and intense Game 1 went to overtime and was decided in the final moments with a LeBron James game-winner, some trickery from Erik Spoelstra to set it up and a controversial decision from Vogel to put Hibbert on the bench for those late-game defensive possessions:
Game 2 went to the Pacers, who stole one on the road just as they had done the season prior. Hibbert scored 29 points, and the Pacers made it a point to go after Bosh as the undersized center. Game 3 was a nearly twenty-point victory for the Heat in Indiana, but the Pacers responded with a thrilling Game 4 win despite going 3-14 from three. A 30-13 third quarter propelled Miami in Game 5, while the opposite, a 29-15 run from Indiana in Game 6, brought them a lead they would not relinquish.
The entire series was on the line in Game 7, as was the legacy of this Heat juggernaut. They came out aggressively to put the matchup on ice in a way the Pacers could not compete with:
Tough, chippy defense and an attack mentality drove the Heat back to the NBA Finals and eventually to their second consecutive NBA Championship. Instead of folding, the Pacers kept most of their roster intact and doubled-down on their chemistry and balance.
Luis Scola joined as a veteran scorer, while shooter Chris Copeland and wing Evan Turner found their way onto the roster in time for the postseason. The Pacers won 56 games the following, once again deploying the stingiest field goal defense and recording the top record in the Eastern Conference. This was a feared group.
Their first-round opponent was the 38-44 Atlanta Hawks, led by first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer. The disparity in records was supposed to lead to a steamrolled first-round, but that was very much not the case. Atlanta stole Game 1, then again took Game 5, earning two road victories against the conference’s top overall team. Paul George took command in Games 6 and 7 to win the final two after a 3-2 deficit, and the Pacers narrowly avoided an embarrassing first-round loss. They were put on high alert.
Next up were the Washington Wizards, young and upstart led by John Wall and Bradley Beal. As they made their identity and pushed the Pacers, Indy had a great defensive gameplan for John Wall all series. The All-Star point guard was held to 14.2 points per game and shot 19 percent from three. The Wizards as a whole were sub-30 percent from deep.
Still, Washington exposed flaws in the Pacers’ mentality. They also won Games 1 and 5 on the road, and the Pacers were heading into the Eastern Conference Finals for the second-straight season after some rickety performances that included four home losses. After emerging as potentially the second-in-line on offense, Lance Stephenson had also struggled throughout the Wizards series.
A rematch with the Heat came in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, and the Pacers conquered their initial demons by taking Game 1. James and Wade combined for 52 points on 63.8 percent shooting, but the Pacers’ balanced starting unit was too potent. Stephenson had 17 and eight assists, Hibbert was a game-high +19, and George Hill drained three threes to lead the Pacers.
The Pacers figured they had successfully weathered the storm of an efficient scoring output from Wade and James. Hibbert was out-playing Bosh, and even that continued in Game 2. Bosh registered just nine points and six rebounds while Hibbert got 12 and 13, respectively. Stephenson had yet another scoring outburst, with 25 points.
Still, the Pacers lost Game 2. Only nine bench points came back to haunt them, as it had during years past. James and Wade combined for 45, and a late push after a neck-and-neck game gave the Heat a 1-1 tie heading back to South Beach:
Commanding performances in Games 3 and 4 by the Heat gave them a 3-1 lead, making certain that this series would be different than the one a year before. Indiana would have to string together three consecutive victories, something done only four times in the prior 30 years at the time.
The Pacers won Game 5 after a fortuitous combination of chance and an incredible performance. LeBron was in foul trouble the whole night and only played 24 minutes, scoring seven points. Paul George, meanwhile, got 37 points to lead Indiana to a 93-90 victory. 21 of his points came in the final frame, and the end of Game 5 was a thriller that should long be remembered, including the original “blocked by James” moment:
Despite those confounding factors, the Pacers only won by three points.
Their bench contributed only six points (all from Scola) and continued to hemorrhage on both ends. The toll that took on the starters finally showed in Game 6.
Indy was down 60-34 at the half, a clear and decisive message from the Heat that they were the preeminent power in the East. The hot shooting of Rashard Lewis continued, and the Heat put Indy away with a 117-92 drubbing. Miami was headed to its fourth consecutive NBA Finals while the Pacers fell a few steps short once again.
For some runner-ups in the Pacers’ situation, age can pass them by. Their window for contention closes as the focal points of their roster exit their prime. Sometimes, trades are made that tinker with the chemistry and lead to natural subtraction. Other times, different also-rans will overpower them with new trades and deals that finally vault them over the runner-up.
The Pacers had none of those paths plague them. Instead, a summer disaster at Team USA Camp bled into the NBA season and literally took the legs out from under them:
George would miss the entire 2014-15 season, save six games at the end, which were designed to shake off the cobwebs. Combo guard Lance Stephenson was gone, signing with the Charlotte Hornets after Larry Bird and the Pacers gave Lance what he believed was a “lowball offer”.
Without those two, and David West at age 34, George Hill became the team’s top scorer. The Pacers won 38 games and missed the playoffs, a predictable outcome given the depletion of their wings and top scoring threats.
After the season, Roy Hibbert was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers after Indiana drafted rookie big man Myles Turner. The former All-Star only fetched a future second-round pick, showing the begin of his steep individual decline. David West was the one who got the ball rolling with his exit, though. He signed with the San Antonio Spurs in the summer of 2015, saying this of his time in Indiana:
I’m just not sure the Pacers are in title contention right now. I’m going into my 13th season. I’ll be 35 soon. When I got to Indiana, there was hope of getting there and we played at a really high level for a couple of years. But I just don’t know if the team is in the position to win right now and I didn’t know if I’d have that opportunity to win a title if I’d stayed with the Pacers.
If that doesn’t slam the door shut on the possibility of a run, nothing will. The Pacers continued to win games and make the postseason once Paul George healed from injury, but the infrastructure around him was no longer built to push for an Eastern Conference crown.
“If you can’t be best, be first.”
Such a philosophy certainly applied to center Roy Hibbert, the original master of verticality. It’s a concept fans are now familiar with but was just starting to gain traction as a demonstrable skill back in 2013. Referees, in an effort to correctly officiate the block-charge circle, sought some way to reward defenders. The solution: jump straight up, leaving in Point A and seeking to land in Point A. If done so, the defense would not be whistled for a foul.
Hibbert was excellent at this, setting a trend for bigs in the modern game to protect the rim with contact rather than just shot-blocking. Hibbert was at one time the preeminent rim protector, yet also had eleven blocks in one game:
The establishment of Paul George as a superstar is the other main legacy of these Pacers teams.
They were below-average offensively, with rough spacing that does not translate to today’s pace-and-space, three-point barrage game. But seeing George develop from a young pup behind Danny Granger to the pitbull that is one of today’s best two-way players unfolded due to his rivalry with LeBron James. George pushed James more than many imagined at the time, which made his leg injury with USA Basketball so much more upsetting.
The Pacers have been fine ever since their failure to topple the Heat; It’s not like they hit the bottom in the ensuing years. Despite a few hiccups, they’ve mostly remained a top-tier Eastern Conference franchise who makes shrewd decisions. Perhaps, they’ll one day get back to last decade’s level by developing their currently well-rounded group.
A superstar? Sure. A game-altering defender? Yes. But the whole was always greater than the sum of its parts. Those are the teams that stick with you as not only a real underdog but one worth cheering for.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.