by Kent Sterling
The Pacers have looked so good during its last three games that idiotic thoughts of multiple championships danced in my head as I watched the 117-89 mercy killing of a recently resurgent Knicks team.
It’s really hard to win one championship – so hard that the Pacers have not been able to do it once in their run of their 37 seasons in the NBA. Hell, they have have only been to the NBA Finals once (in 2000).
The excellence of the Pacers in pasting Knicks after accepting a little adversity in the form of a 16-8 deficit was so thorough that I began to wonder where the Pacers stand among the great teams I have seen play.
That’s before they even reach the halfway mark of a season with no guarantee of a positive conclusion, and that’s weird for me. I’m usually a tough customer to sell on greatness.
A 31-7 record is very pretty, but it only gauges the Pacers level of play through January 17th. What might happen in late April, May, and (knock wood) June is entirely independent of winning 31 of its first 38 games.
But I couldn’t help myself. The defensive excellence of the Pacers is impossible to ignore. Allowing an average of 88.1 points per game is 4.7 points per game better than the second best defensive NBA team. Anything in the public radio FM frequency spectrum is outstanding (sub 92), and the Pacers are easily under that.
The offense is relatively stout too. There is seldom a time when the Pacers don’t have five players on the floor who can score, and the bench is filled with players capable of playing at both ends of the floor.
As I sit here, I fight an overwhelming urge to write something incredibly premature and dumb – that the Pacers are capable of becoming great.
The word great is one of the most overused in sports media. There have been very few great teams in the last 30 years of the NBA. The Celtics and Lakers of the 1980s and Bulls of the 1990s round out the list, although the Bulls were really a creation of the best player of all-time and don’t qualify as a great “team”.
The Celtics and Lakers sported phenomenal depth and excellence. Neither team was a one-trick pony. The Celtics had players like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson, Cedric Maxwell, Danny Ainge, Gerald Henderson, and Bill Walton. The Lakers boasted Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Michael Cooper, Byron Scott, Bob McAdoo, and Jamaal Wilkes.
Those were great teams in the best sense of the word. To compare these yet-to-be-champion Pacers to either of those groups is madness, but they sure as hell looked outstanding last night.
The Pacers aren’t just good, and they aren’t winning because of good fortune. The wins are coming by 20+ points, and the ability of the Pacers to quickly process information to figure out how to win each game is developing very quickly. Of the Pacers 31 wins, 19 have come by double digit margins, and most involved early deficits.
Learning to play is one thing, but the Pacers are learning to win.
Watching the game last night, it was obvious that the Pacers had the Knicks number – even when the Knicks led 16-8. There was a palpable sense that the Pacers were feeling out the Knicks, and would impose their will as soon as they found an opening. The opening came and the Pacers turned the eight-point deficit into a 28-point win with efficient basketball that baffled and deflated the Knicks.
Earlier in the day, Pacers President Larry Bird spoke to the media about turnovers being the potential undoing of a Pacers championship run. The players responded by turning it over only five times last night.
There is something special about this group. At practice, they work hard. After practice, they continue working hard. There is a focus to the work that belies a desire to pursue their potential, and above all else that focus is a component of greatness.
The Pacers will need to win one championship before anyone has a right to talk about two. And a third will be needed to start conversations that include the words “Pacers” and “great” in the same sentence, but it was impossible to lock out that possibility while watching the Pacers last night.
The opening is there, but the Pacers will need to find the collective discipline needed over a period of years, not weeks, to build the needed difference between themselves and the other 29 NBA teams to be considered great.