Pacers Show Growth, Promise in First Year with New Core

Well, at least it was an appropriate ending. A close loss, with failure to execute in the most crucial moments of the fourth quarter.

Pacers fans saw that too many times during the season, but the bottom line is this: the team at the very least met all expectations, both in the season and the playoffs, and exceeded many. Amid all the near-misses and lost opportunities, all the arguments for why the season could have been better, that's the epitaph following their Game 7 loss in Toronto on Sunday.

I predicted 45 wins before the season began (it's in writing, even, in a mailbag) and they won 45. I don't know of anybody who predicted more, and it would be foolish to be harshly critical of a seventh-seeded team for not upsetting a second-seeded team that has more battle-tested.

That's hard to believe sometimes in the wake of a Game 7 loss in which you know the Pacers could have played better, but Toronto was the more underachieving team in this series. Look around the league, and every playoff loser faces the same doubts and frustrations after the fact. Charlotte, a team better than the Pacers during the season, lost at Miami, a team not as good as Toronto during the season, by 33 points on Sunday in their Game 7. So it goes.

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The Pacers outscored Toronto by 10 points over the course of the series, and shot better, too. Their only shortcoming was rebounding. They gave up an average of five per game. They had nobody who could move Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo out of the way and gave up far too many second-chance points. If not for that one element, the Pacers would have flown to Miami after Sunday's game instead of Indianapolis.

Sure, the Pacers often looked as if they were the better team during the series, but there was a reason the Raptors won 56 games and the Pacers 45 in the regular season. Experience and chemistry, mostly, and that's what carried them to their 89-84 victory at Air Canada Centre. I said it many times during the season and Paul George reiterated it after the game: this was a first-year team. It had six new players on its playoff roster and started a 20-year-old rookie. Those kind of teams have built-in limitations.

This wasn't the Pacers team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals two and three seasons ago. It wasn't the Pacers team that reached the conference finals five times in the seven-year span from 1994-2000, and again in 2004. Those teams had made gradual progressions toward their final four appearances. This was more like the Pacers team from, say, 1991, when Reggie Miller was a fourth-year pro. They took Boston to the limit in a best-of-five first-round series but succumbed to their lack of experience.

The postgame conversations on Sunday reminded me of those three years ago, when a young team making its first extended playoff run lost to Miami in Game 7 of the conference finals. The players were disappointed, but couldn't muster anger.

"Heck of a run," Paul George said Sunday.

"If they had told me I would have a chance to lead my team the first year back from injury, give us a chance to advance to the second round...and then have to go against five different defenders and figure how to score and make plays as well as guard...if you had told me I had to go through all that this season and (would) be healthy, I probably would have laughed.

"I'm proud of my guys."

Note what he said. "My guys." This was a turning point in George's career, when he became the Pacers' unquestioned leader. There's plenty more to be written about him in the days ahead.

The Pacers have five potential spots to fill over the summer. Ian Mahinmi, Solomon Hill, Jordan Hill and Ty Lawson are free agents. They also hold an option on Shayne Whittington's contract. Changes will be made, as always, and they are impossible to predict. It's not only a question of who they want back, but who they can get and how much other teams offer their players. They won't know all that until they wade into the free agency waters.

This team has no glaring needs, but some definite ones. It either needs a better offense to execute or better execution of its offense. The stagnant sets that brought about the slow start in Sunday's game were all too familiar. And, somehow, it needs to have a sharper edge, more juice, more killer instinct, whatever you want to call it. That's primarily an issue of personality and is the responsibility of the front office. If you want a snarling dog to protect your home, you don't buy a Golden Retriever. But again, it's a first-year team.

As Solomon Hill said Sunday night, they didn't play with desperation until the fourth quarter, after falling behind by 16 points. At that point Toronto began playing not to lose and appeared perfectly capable of giving back the game, as if haunted by the memory of its past playoff failures. The Raptors scored just 11 points and committed four turnovers in the fourth quarter, but that was barely enough to hold off a potentially miraculous Pacers comeback that would have sent all of Canada into a state of depression.

The Pacers, it could be argued, were victimized by a couple of calls. George was called for a charging foul after picking off a steal and driving to the basket that could have gone either way. If he's allowed that three-point play, the Pacers are down five with more than three minutes left. And the referees clearly missed DeMar DeRozan shoving Mahinmi from behind when George lobbed a pass for a possible dunk when the Pacers were down three with 15 seconds remaining.

"Couple calls they blew tonight, to be honest," George said.

There usually are, which is why you prefer homecourt advantage.

The Pacers can find arguments for improvement next year in many areas. George, primarily, but also Myles Turner. Despite playing like a 20-year-old rookie on Sunday, Turner proved to be a savvy draft pick and a promising player who can become an All-Star. He needs to develop a post-up game, but appears to have the maturity and will to reach his potential. He said earlier in the series the only times all season he had felt nervous was in the season-opener, his first NBA game, and the first game against the Raptors. This was his first Game 7, and he was nervous for it as well.

It's behind him now, just as the season is behind the Pacers. They'll come back a different team next season, wiser for their experience and well ahead of where they began this past season in terms of chemistry and cohesion. What they just experienced seemed to be much closer to the start of something than the end of something.

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