After pushing the Heat to six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, and taking some chunks out of their more heralded opponents in the process, the Pacers were projected to compete for the second seed in the East behind Miami this season.
No more hiding in the friendly confines of Bankers Life Fieldhouse with a bunch of no-name players and a coach who was once a baby-faced video coordinator for Rick Pitino. The Pacers had arrived, as Larry Bird’s plan to build a moderately salaried team with no prima donnas came to fruition.
The Pacers were not only ready to take the Central Division from the Bulls but also ready to take on the Heat and the NBA.
Those ideas apparently were foiled when Danny Granger, the closest thing Indiana has had to an All-Star since Reggie Miller, was declared out for at least three months because of patellar tendinitis.
Granger is beginning to show signs of returning and he’ll be welcomed back by a team that has grown exponentially in his absence because it had to. Without their leading scorer, the Pacers had to depend on a stingy defense, the flourishing of Paul George, and the leadership of David West, who rejected the opportunity to sign with the Celtics to play in Indiana.
The Pacers were 19-14 entering Saturday night’s game despite big man Roy Hibbert adjusting slowly to life as one of the league’s highest-paid players (he’ll make $14.2 million this season).
“Without Danny, we had to make some adjustments and stabilize how we’re going to play on the offensive end,” said coach Frank Vogel, a former Celtics assistant on Pitino’s staff. “When that started to come, the wins started to come.
“It’s been a challenge. What it does is, your bench guys can step up and fill a decent enough role with the starters — you get by there, but you lose the bench. Your bench becomes your third-string guys. That’s become a greater challenge than making up for what we’re getting from the starting lineup.
“These guys are pros. It’s just opportunities for guys like Lance Stephenson, Gerald Green, and Sam Young to show what they can do.”
Hibbert has had a difficult season numbers-wise, but said he is working feverishly to regain his previous form.
“I haven’t been playing up to where I want to play in terms of my shot,” said Hibbert, who is shooting a career-low 40.2 percent. “I am a pretty good post defender but obviously with this contract, you have to put up big numbers. It’s unfortunate that I haven’t been able to do that.
“It hasn’t been from a lack of trying. It’s not like I got my contract and I was lazy after that. This is one of the tougher seasons and very trying for me, but I stay positive as much as possible.”
George has been the team’s best player, a former lottery pick from Fresno State who has developed into a staunch defender and graceful scorer because of his length. The swingman is second on the Pacers in scoring (16.6 points per game), is third in rebounding (7.3), and generally spends his evenings checking All-Star guards such as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
“I mean, it’s obviously different [playing for the Pacers] because we don’t get recognition, nothing’s [nationally] televised,” George said. “That’s probably the only negative thing about it.
“But as far as not having marquee guys, it’s great. Our locker room is awesome. Our chemistry is awesome. We don’t have guys that are arrogant.
“It’s everybody as a whole. We’re all tied together. That’s the greatest thing about it. But again, the downfall is we don’t get the same love as big-market teams get.”
The Miami series was Indiana’s re-emergence after all but disappearing following the “Brawl at the Palace” in 2004. The Pacers led the Heat, two games to one, but dropped the final three as Dwyane Wade was brilliant.
“If we would have beaten Miami, that would have given us some leverage,” said George. “For the most part, we’ve proved ourselves. We beat teams that we thought we wouldn’t have beaten and we’ve done it on a consistent level last year.
“With Danny being out, we’re still a club that teams are having a hard time with, and it will be nice to get a little respect from it.”
Jackson built in Doc’s image
Going straight from the television booth to the coaching ranks is a difficult transition but one Mark Jackson, in his second season with the Warriors, has made successfully. He was considered a trendy hire when he accepted the job during the Heat-Mavericks 2011 Finals series that he was calling, but there has been substance to Jackson's coaching tenure. The Warriors have become one of the league's most surprising teams and have developed a defensive identity not seen in Oakland since the days of John Matuszak and Otis Sistrunk.
Jackson said he had no doubts about his ability to coach, and that he leaned on Doc Rivers, who made the same transition.
“Doc is a guy I talk to and I have spoken to in the process of me becoming a head coach,” Jackson said. “Not only that, just sitting with him during playoff runs or championship runs, going to dinner, spending time with him.
“I value him. I think he's a great coach. I think he's a heck of a basketball mind and he was very helpful to me during the process. So he's somebody I have a tremendous amount of respect for and I'm thankful. He's a guy who would pick up the phone and say, 'Hey, Mark Jackson's going to be an OK coach,' and I value that.
“I value the fact that he did it by not being an assistant coach. He's a championship coach and he's in the discussion for the best in the business. I do not take for granted how that paved the way and made it easier for someone to give me an opportunity.”
Jackson, who was hired by an ownership group that included former Celtics minority owner Joe Lacob, said he wasn't concerned about his lack of coaching experience.
“I don't care about that, I don't get caught up in it,” he said. “Never meant anything to me. You win in this league with talent, and all I wanted was to have an opportunity. And I said it before, if I never coached a day in my life, I would have died and been extremely happy and satisfied.”
Allen thrives in Memphis
One of the biggest regrets that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge may have is making the re-signing of Tony Allen a medium priority during the summer of 2010. The Celtics offered Allen a two-year deal with a team option for a third, while the Grizzlies nabbed him with a three-year package that will conclude after this season.
Allen was the Celtics’ best defender, and the club has not had that consistent on-ball defender since him (Avery Bradley has the potential but has to stay healthy). Allen's value to the Celtics was dismissed at times, and he said so when he left for Memphis. The Celtics waited a few weeks into July before getting serious about re-signing him, and they lost him.
“We missed him the day he walked out of the door,” said coach Doc Rivers. “He does what Avery is expected to do now that he's back. He gives his team an identity, a toughness. When Tony Allen's in the building, the other team knows it. Forget the offensive stuff, because he still somehow scores. He just makes things happen.”
When Allen signed with the Grizzlies, general manager Chris Wallace emphasized to him the importance of bringing the knowledge he gleaned in Boston to the younger core in Memphis. The Grizzlies are no longer one of the league's emerging teams. They are considered one of the Western Conference's elite clubs.
“Listen, you're around Kevin [Garnett] and Ray [Allen] and Paul [Pierce] every day and that has to help you,” Rivers said. “That's no coincidence that he left and he's become the leader in a lot of ways.
“[Allen in Memphis and Kendrick Perkins in Oklahoma City], they were around those guys and they saw how we did it. They see the level of professionalism those three guys play with every night and then go to other places and they see their best players and they say, ‘But you're not doing what they did.’ It's an easy message.”
Allen is the Grizzlies' starting shooting guard, assigned primarily to the opposing team's top scorer. He gave Rajon Rondo and Pierce fits defensively last Wednesday and was able to hit the open shot or streak for a layup when the Boston defense shifted to Rudy Gay or Mike Conley.
“When you come in here, you always get the feeling of ‘what ifs?’ or ‘how it used to be,’ the joy, the good times,” Allen said about returning to Boston. “Winning the championship here [in 2008] you always get that feeling coming back.’’
Ray Allen departed after last season, singing similar sentiments.
“I don't know why Ray left,” said Tony Allen. “I ain't worried about why Ray left. But I know he's a Hall of Fame cat, so my hats go off to him and everything he did. He was a great teammate to me. I learned a lot from him and salute him; love him to death like a brother."
The Grizzlies are currently the fifth seed in the Western Conference, hardly overlooked anymore because Allen, Gay, Conley, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol have developed into a title-contending squad after four years of growth.
“The rabbit's out of the hat about the Memphis Grizzlies,” Allen said. “We’re starting to get everybody's A game. And that's what we need in order for us to continue to be talked about as one of the contenders. We have to come in and compete and get these wins.
“I'm just a piece to a puzzle, nothing more, nothing less. I am staying in my lane. I can't come in here and try to be Kevin Durant, LeBron James, or Paul Pierce. But I am a force.”
Allen said the experience from his Celtics days and maturity have helped him become a leader.
“The leadership role comes with the territory, and being a veteran and knowing what's right and what's wrong,” he said. "[With Garnett], I learned a lot from preparation. I like the way he practices, 110 percent effort in everything that he does, and I just feel like if you are going hard all the time, good things will happen. I took that from him.
“I learned a lot from all those guys. I took a little bit from each one of them.”
Cousins now helping Kings
Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins has been the subject of trade rumors since his third suspension of the season for an argument with coach Keith Smart. Smart said he has forgotten about the Dec. 21 incident, and general manager Geoff Petrie said Cousins isn't going anywhere.
Cousins managed his first NBA triple-double on Dec. 30 against the Celtics He went 4 for 12 from the field, displaying an uncanny ability to contribute in other areas when he isn't scoring. In his next two games, he combined for 39 points, 30 rebounds, and 8 assists.
Cousins appeared uncomfortable with the media after he returned from his suspension to notch a double-double (15 points, 10 rebounds) against the Knicks.
“I've been ready [to move forward],” he said. “I didn't have any expectations about [coming back]. Whatever [Smart] decided to do, I was going to do.”
Former Celtic Nate Robinson, who has bounced around the NBA since Boston dealt him to the Thunder in the Kendrick Perkins-Jeff Green deal, has had his contract guaranteed for the season by the Bulls. Robinson has matured over the years, and has developed into a solid backup point guard in Chicago with Derrick Rose recovering from a torn left ACL
Day of decision
Fans should be marking Wednesday on their calendars; it’s when contracts have to be guaranteed for the season or the players waived. Players such as Indiana's Sam Young, New Orleans’s Lance Thomas, the Knicks' Rasheed Wallace and Chris Copeland, and the Celtics' Kris Joseph are playing with nonguaranteed contracts.
Former Brooklyn swingman Josh Childress, who has not made an impact since returning from his stint in Greece, is available. He asked to be waived by the Nets because he was not part of the rotation. Also, Houston waived former Ohio State sharpshooter Daequan Cook, who is looking for work after being traded or released by his third team. Cook left the Buckeyes after his freshman season . . . Kings guard Tyreke Evans received a second opinion on his ailing right knee and tests revealed a bruise. He is expected to return to the club during its upcoming homestand. The Kings moved Evans to shooting guard after he faltered at the point. They will need him soon with Marcus Thornton out indefinitely with a sprained left ankle sustained when he landed on Jason Terry’s foot after launching a 3-pointer against the Celtics . . . Brandon Roy has knee problems again and is out indefinitely as he ponders his future. Roy has been limited to five games this season after knocking knees with Milwaukee's Ersan Ilyasova during the preseason. The Timberwolves signed Roy to a two-year deal after he came out of retirement but if he is already experiencing knee issues, it may be time for the team to seek a replacement. They already lost Josh Howard to a torn anterior cruciate ligament . . . It's been a rough go for former Celtic JaJuan Johnson in the NBADL. He is shooting 40 percent from the field and was traded from Fort Wayne to Canton last week. He was the NBADL’s No. 1 draft pick after playing his rookie season in Boston.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at firstname.lastname@example.org. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.