Major change, slight improvement
One additional victory, in both the regular season and the playoffs, was the difference between the 2001-2002 Indiana Pacers and their immediate predecessor. The 2000-2001 edition went 41-41 and dropped out of the playoffs in the first round, losing three of four to the 76ers, who would go on to become the Eastern Conference champion.
This year, the club finished 42-40 and qualified for the playoffs on the last night of the regular season by virtue of a home win against those same 76ers while Milwaukee was capping their late-season collapse with an embarrassing rout in Detroit. Indiana took first-seed New Jersey to a decisive fifth game in this year's first round, before falling 120-109 in double overtime in a game that is destined to be seen again on ESPN Classic.
But the razor-thin difference in output isn't at all indicative of the sea-change that occurred during the year. For the second season in a row, Indiana virtually turned over their roster yet still made the playoffs.
After their 1999-00 championship run that ended with a six-game dismissal at the hands of the Lakers, Indiana was dismantled for the first time. Mark Jackson and Antonio Davis became Raptors, Dale Davis was traded to Portland and Rik Smits retired. And the head coach, Isiah Thomas, was a rookie with the team, too.
This year, the transformation came in a February 19 deal that sent Jalen Rose and Travis Best to the Bulls for Brad Miller, Ron Artest, Kevin Ollie and Ron Mercer. Following the blockbuster deal, Indiana finished the season with a 16-13 record.
That the newly acquired quartet was important to the Pacers' efforts was in evidence in the season's final game. Brad Miller played 45 minutes and went for 14 points and 17 rebounds. Mercer continued his torrid playoff shooting with a 10-16 performance good for 20 points. Artest had 14 points before fouling out and Ollie, subbing for the injured and ineffective Jamaal Tinsley, played 34 key minutes and handed out eight assists.
After the trade, Indiana became the league's youngest team, and after they qualified for the playoffs, became one of only five in history to make the postseason with an average age of under 25.
Thomas was under no illusions regarding the youthfulness of his team and their chances this year. "You're looking at next year or probably some time after that before this team can really settle into being who it's going to become," he said before a playoff game at Conseco Fieldhouse. "These are learning experiences."
The youngsters learned too that a certain teammate is one of the best clutch performers of all time. Reggie Miller, who will turn 37 before next season starts, averaged 23.6 points in the playoffs (more than seven points better than his regular season average) while shooting .506 from the field and .419 from beyond the arc. His 39-foot bank shot at the buzzer to force overtime in the fifth game against New Jersey is yet another chapter in Miller's playoff heroics scrapbook.
Back too will be Jermaine O'Neal, a first-time NBA All-star and a member of the third-team all-league squad. O'Neal led the team during the regular season with 19 points a game. That represented a six-point upgrade from last year and earned the 23-year-old the NBA's Most Improved Player award. O'Neal's playoff performance was subpar however, after scoring 30 points in the Pacers' Game 1 upset win.
Forward Al Harrington should be healthy again after tearing the ACL in his right knee on January 23. Harrington was having a terrific year, averaging 13 points a game before the injury.
Next year then, would seem to be a pivotal year for the franchise and its coach. The mass turnover should stop, the four new players will have the benefit of training camp and everyone should be healthy. The only personnel question mark is the status of forward Austin Croshere who costs the Pacers' nearly $7 million against the salary cap but has received diminished playing time behind O'Neal and Jeff Foster.
Expectations will be higher than they were this year and certainly greater than they were after the trade. It will take more than a one-game improvement to satisfy Pacer Nation next time around.
Les Morris covers the Pacers for the Shelbyville News and is a frequent contributor to HoopsHype.com
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