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Pacers to Fever: Relax, Enjoy the Moment

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

October 21, 2012

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Optimistic assumption is the greatest enemy in sports, ruining accomplishment and killing dreams. The Fever should be aware of that as they prepare for Sunday's potential title-clinching, mayhem-inspiring game against Minnesota. In fact, they should dial up a few veteran Pacers for some quick history lessons.

The Fever lead their best-of-five championship series 2-1. One more victory will bring the city its first professional basketball championship since 1973. Just one more homecourt win. Just one more homecourt win before a screaming sellout crowd, poised to go bonkers on their behalf.

But what might seem like closing sprint with the wind at their collective back also is a potential landmine, one that more often than not has blown up on the Pacers throughout their ABA and NBA history.

"It's very difficult to perform in front of your home crowd," former Pacers guard Freddie Lewis said.

Lewis knows, because he played on all three Pacers teams that won ABA titles – on the road. Two of those championships could have been clinched in the friendly confines of the Coliseum before a full house of friendly fans, but the Pacers couldn't handle the moment.

It was the same challenge the Fever face on Sunday: Performing at your peak level when the fan base is so hopeful, so assuming, and when the champagne is on ice, waiting to be sprayed.

The Pacers first experienced it in 1970, when they took a 3-1 lead on the Los Angeles Stars in the ABA finals and headed home to wrap up the series. Pat Vidan, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway flag-waver, greeted them at the airport and waved a white flag as the players walked through the terminal: just one lap to go. Game 5, to be played on Sunday afternoon before a national television audience on CBS, was sold out to a degree that mocked the fire codes.

Stars 117, Pacers 113. In overtime.

The Pacers hit just 39-of-109 shots. Roger Brown, who enjoyed the peak moments of his career in the series, scored 39 points, but missed a short jumper that would have won the game in regulation. Bob Netolicky scored 21 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, but hit just 7-of-22 shots. It didn't help that he had gone water-skiing the previous day and had sore arms and shoulders.

"I think we might have been trying too hard to win and got too cautious," Brown said afterward.

"I believe we were thinking ahead a little bit," Keller said.

"We weren't overconfident, we were just tense, too keyed up," coach Bob Leonard said.

"All the cameras and champagne went to our heads," Mel Daniels said.

No problem, as it turned out. The Pacers went back to Los Angeles more focused and relaxed. They went to Disneyland the day before the game and were free from the sort of distractions that are inevitable at home. Nancy Leonard remembers walking down the tunnel into the arena, scared to death, when Brown stopped her. "You look like you're about to face a firing squad," he said, and told her to relax.

The Pacers won 111-107, and flew home champions.

They got another chance to close out a championship on their home court three years later, against Kentucky. They took a 3-2 series lead in Louisville, then headed back up I-65 for a May 10 game at the Coliseum.

Once again, champagne on ice.

Once again, a packed house of more than 10,000 fans.

Kentucky 109, Pacers 93.

The Pacers hit just 2-of-16 shots to start the fourth quarter before Leonard cleared the bench. They shot just 40 percent from the field for the game, while the Colonels shot better than 50 percent.

But no problem, as it turned out. The Pacers headed back down I-65 and beat the Colonels – who no doubt were feeling plenty of tense expectation themselves – 88-81 in Game 7, a score that was deceivingly close. Some members of the Pacers traveling party celebrated deep into the night, frolicking half-clothed in the fountain in the lobby of the Executive Inn hotel.

What gives? Teams play all season to earn homecourt advantage, and then – for the Pacers at least – it seems to mean nothing in the playoffs. Not just in the ABA, but in the NBA as well. The vast majority of the franchise's postseason highlights have come on the road, whether it was Byron Scott's game-winning three-pointer over Orlando in Game 1 of the 1994 first-round series, or all those Reggie Miller moments in Madison Square Garden, Philadelphia, New Jersey or Milwaukee.

The Fever shouldn't have to be told how this tends to go for Indianapolis professional teams. They experienced the same homecourt letdown three years ago. They had a chance to win the championship against Phoenix at the Fieldhouse, but didn't handle the moment. Then they went out to Phoenix and lost the title.

"There is a certain amount of anxiety (playing a closeout game at home)," recalled Mel Daniels, the starting center on all there ABA title teams. "You don't want to fail the fans. It caused you to be cautious. Not as assertive. A whole lot of things go through your mind."

Imagine the experience of a player preparing for a championship closeout game at home. Family and friends talking as if its going to happen. People making plans for a celebration. Walking into the locker room and seeing champagne on ice. The heightened buzz of the home fans.

"It left us very, very tense and we just didn't play well," Lewis said. "It seemed the officiating didn't go our way and we'd get in foul trouble. Just little things like that happened to hinder us. Once we got on the road we were so much more relaxed and comfortable."

The Fever should heed the warning. Nothing is assured just because they're at home Sunday.

On the other hand, the Fever can take solace. If it doesn't work out at Bankers Life, there's always Game 5 in Minneapolis. That's where all the pressure will be on the home team.

Daniels' advice? Relax.

"It's not the end of the world," he said. "It's serious, but nobody's going to take you out and hang you if you don't win."

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