Savor This Moment, This Team, Before Looking Ahead

May 9, 2012

Hold on a minute.

Deep breath.

Before everybody straps on their Darren Collison jetpacks and goes streaking into the second round, before we all start breaking down the matchups and the keys and just what the Pacers' chances will be against Miami, let's sit down, put our feet up and savor what just happened.

Game 1, a team unfamiliar with the role of favorite blows a lead in the final four minutes at home, the kind of fertile loss in which the seeds of doubt could blossom into a suffocating kudzu.

Game 2, same team bounces back and wins a blowout, only to be reminded the opponent still holds the advantage.

Hibbert and the rest of the Pacers bench celebrate

Game 3, another blowout, even bigger this time, on the road, answers any questions about the team's confidence.

Game 4, the fulcrum, when a 19-point fourth-quarter lead was blown, the opponent had good looks to win it at the end of regulation and overtime, but the team found a way to make it 3-1 instead of 2-2 and thoroughly uproot the kudzu.

And then Game 5, the battered but proud and noble opponent simply refused to go away until it was beaten into submission in the fourth quarter by a team that appeared to have learned its lesson about how to close games.

That fourth quarter was a celebration seven years, three coaches and 59 players in the making, a third straight sellout crowd turning Bankers Life Fieldhouse into the epicenter of Indianapolis once again.

"It was awesome to see the teammates standing up and cheering for you, everybody high-fiving, I see my dad and my cousin high-fiving in the crowd, it was an amazing feeling, really," said Danny Granger, the survivor never voted off this island. "The floor shook from the crowd tonight. We knew we were in Indiana Pacers basketball."

When the 105-87 victory was complete Tuesday night, Frank Vogel, the pathologically optimistic young coach who has instilled in these players the belief they can be something special, looked to the front row behind the scorer's table for his wife but there were too many celebrants in the way.

Not a bad problem, when you get right down to it.

"We said we were going to have fun doing this, we're going to dream big," he said. "I'm just so happy for our fans who have endured a lot of years where we struggled. To finally see us come back and have a winning team again, with a chance to do something special this year, that's what they deserve.

Hibbert and the rest of the Pacers bench celebrate

"Pacers basketball is back. It's exciting."

Indeed it is. Larry Bird has built a team the only way you can in Indianapolis: very carefully. In a small market with limited resources, Bird couldn't afford mistakes, so he didn't make any.

After the gift of Granger was dropped into the Pacers' laps with the No. 17 pick in 2005, Bird drafted Paul George, Tyler Hansbrough, A.J. Price and Lance Stephenson; traded for Roy Hibbert, George Hill, Darren Collison and Leandro Barbosa; and signed David West, Lou Amundson, Dahntay Jones and Jeff Pendergraph.

Bird didn't assemble a roster, he built a team.

And, precisely on his schedule, that team has arrived as a force in the Eastern Conference, one fully capable of taking another step toward championship contention in the years to come.

"This is what this team is all about. I’m really proud to be on this team," Granger said. "As they told me a few years back when I first came here, this day would come."

Beating Orlando, even without Dwight Howard, was no mean feat. Take a look at what the Bulls -- minus Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah -- did to the Sixers last night. Even Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi wrote today that the Pacers would've beaten the Magic had Howard been healthy.

"A huge step for our franchise," Vogel said. "We took a big step last year getting back into the playoffs and ever since that minute we came back with the mindset that we wanted to advance further than we did last year so we're very happy to get this W and advance.

"We're not happy with just getting that, though. We feel like this is just the beginning of a big run. We're excited about where we're at as a basketball team."

That's why we should all take a moment to reflect before we project. What lies ahead remains to be seen, but this journey has provided one hell of a ride.

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