With Playoff Berth In Sight, Pacers Focused on Miami

March 24, 2018 - Though the Pacers' magic number to clinch a playoff berth is just one, they're simply focusing on a strong finish to the regular season, beginning Sunday against Miami.

Pregame 180325

Scroll Video up Scroll Video down Scroll Video left Scroll Video right

With Playoff Berth In Sight, Pacers Focused on Miami

March 24, 2018 - Though the Pacers' magic number to clinch a playoff berth is just one, they're simply focusing on a strong finish to the regular season, beginning Sunday against Miami.
Mar 24, 2018  |  02:42

Collison Feeling Taller Than Ever

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer

Let's clear up one detail from the start. Darren Collison is not 6-foot-2, as occasionally listed on Pacers rosters. He's an even 6-foot. How else could he have won the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award as the nation's best player 6-foot and under following his senior season at UCLA?

No matter. Collison is standing taller than ever this season for the Pacers. He's the starting point guard on a team that has surpassed regular season expectations by as wide a margin as any team in the NBA, and perhaps more than any in franchise history, and is on the verge of clinching a playoff spot — perhaps as early as Sunday's game against Miami at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

While the Pacers have a roster full of players hungry for postseason success, none will appreciate it more than Collison. Only a year ago, he was being held out of late-season games on a Sacramento team headed toward the ignominy of a 32-50 record. On March 24, 2017, for example, he was held out of a loss at Golden State. Not by his choice, mind you, but by the coach's decision. Or perhaps a front office executive's decision. That's why on Saturday, March 24, 2018, he was happy to be practicing at St. Vincent Center with a team that's already won 42 games and is fighting for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

PLAYOFF PICTURE: Track the Pacers' Playoff Push »

Collison was held out of six of the Kings' final 15 games, as the front office's focus shifted toward protecting the odds of a high draft pick. While that was an understandable strategy from an administrative standpoint, it was an infuriating strategy from a prideful veteran's standpoint.

"It was terrible," Collison said following Saturday's practice. "One of my worst experiences as a player. It was something I don't want any competitor to go through."

Collison could have been forgiven for playing along with not playing. The Kings had no shot at a playoff berth, and he was an eight-year veteran whose contract was expiring. It would have been in his selfish interest to lower his risk of injury for the upcoming free agent negotiations. If the team was in a late-season tank mode, what was the point of him caring?

"Because I always felt like regardless of your record, you still have to be professional," he said. "You still have a name that you're trying to look after. You still have a family to feed. When you have that opportunity, you want to go out there and perform."

Collison still performed when given the opportunity last season. The day after sitting out that game against the Warriors, he was back in the starting lineup against the Clippers. He scored 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting. The next night, he scored 23 points on 8-of-13 shooting against Memphis. He only played in four of the final seven games, however, and made his final appearance of the season on April 7, with three games still to play.

In his final game as a King, which didn't exactly leave him feeling like royalty, he scored 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting and passed out 10 assists against the Lakers in Los Angeles.

"It's a bad feeling," he said. "There's no hope when going to the arena. You're picking out things to motivate yourself to go out there and perform. It's not a situation I want any competitor to witness or be in.

"But one thing I took from it, I was always professional. I always came and did my job. There are fans coming to the game, you want to be able to play hard for them. Sacramento has some of the best fans in the entire league. You don't want to go out there and not give your best effort. You want to be able to leave a good name for people. You don't want people to say, 'Oh, he didn't play hard,' or "He only plays hard when he's on this team.'

"I play hard no matter what team I'm on."

Collison admits to questioning whether he was destined to wind down his career in oblivion. He had made just one postseason appearance since leaving the Pacers in 2012, that as a backup with the Clippers in 2014. He was optimistic when signing a three-year deal with the Kings that summer, as is usually the case when a free agents signs. He was joining established veteran Rudy Gay and blossoming star DeMarcus Cousins on a roster with an enthusiastic ownership group.

The Kings had called him at 12:01, the earliest possible moment in the free agency period, to express their devotion. He called it a "blessing," adding "I just liked every part of their vision."

It never panned out, for anyone. He was limited to 45 games because of a right hip injury his first season with the Kings, then lost his starting job to Rajon Rondo the following season, then soldiered through the bottoming-out process of last season.

Was that all his career had to offer? He was about to turn 30 and was on the precipice of becoming a journeyman. He had already for five teams, with another in his future.

"Those doubts start to creep in," he said. "You start to wonder if this is going to be your entire career."

Collison says he had serious interest from at least four or five teams besides the Pacers over the summer, a few of which were likely headed for the playoffs. He believes if he had waited out the process for a while longer, he could have attracted a more lucrative offer than he got from the Pacers, who signed him to a two-year deal with a partial guarantee for the second season.

A more lucrative offer, though, wouldn't necessarily have been a better offer. He not only liked what he was hearing from the Pacers' new President of Basketball Operations, Kevin Pritchard, he liked what he was seeing in the development of the Pacers' roster. He signed one day after Paul George was traded for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, and was aware of the impending acquisition of Bojan Bogdanovic, who signed three days later.

With Myles Turner and Thaddeus Young already on hand, he thought there would be a nucleus he could grow with. He thought Oladipo could become an All-Star and said so at the introductory press conference for Oladipo, Sabonis, and himself. He liked Thad Young's professional approach. He liked Myles Turner's playing potential and "vibe" as a teammate. He looked forward to playing with Bojan Bogdanovic, too, because "every time we played his team, he killed us."

"I had no idea I was going to be in a situation like this," he said. "But what I did know was, the next team I picked, I was going to make sure I wasn't going to be in a (bad) situation. It's hard to predict that, but you can kind of tell what situation is going to be positive if you look at the guys you're going to play with, the coaching staff and the organization. The first thing I told KP, I didn't come here just to play basketball, I came here to win. And he understood that. Regardless of what happens, I want to be able to compete. I don't want to go through a situation where you're quote-unquote tanking or trying to prepare for next year.

"He told me loud and clear he wasn't trying to do that. He was trying to win. We kind of agreed on that."

So far, the season has exceeded the most optimistic expectations, for both Collison and the Pacers. He's averaging 12.7 points while hitting a career-high 49.9 percent of his field goal attempts and a career-high and league-best 45.1 percent of his 3-point shots. He also leads the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.3-to-1) and has established himself as the player who sets the tempo and balance of the offense.

The Pacers, meanwhile, will soon clinch a playoff spot, if Detroit doesn't do it for them on Saturday evening. Collison, though, sees nothing to celebrate whenever it happens.

"I've clinched before," he said.

"At the end of the day, to me personally, you can call me crazy, but I'm playing to win it all. I just don't see why (we would be satisfied) going to the playoffs. I plan to win it all. Not to say it's going to be easy, but that's my goal. To win it all."

Regardless of how the season ends, Collison will be standing tall. His career has emerged from 6 feet under to alive and thriving, upright like never before.

Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at askmontieth@gmail.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.

Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.