by Scott Agness | @ScottAgness
December 26, 2013
2013 will go down as a memorable year for the Indiana Pacers. It was a year where they pushed the NBA Champions to the brink, but came up just short. It may go down as the year that soaked fans back in, and a year where the end wasn’t the end, but rather the start of something special.
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Consider all that happened in 2013:
• On the floor, the Pacers were 18-13 when the calendars flipped to 2013. A week into the new year, the Pacers signed coach Frank Vogel to a contract extension, keeping him with the franchise for the foreseeable future. The team took care of business at home throughout most of February, winning nine of 12 games, including wins over Miami, Chicago, New York and Golden State. And, for how much they disliked it, they impressively swept all three games of a back-to-back-to-back, the only team to have one on their schedule (due to a re-scheduling).
• Just before the All-Star break, George recorded his first triple-double, giving the Pacers three players with that statistical achievement during the same season (Roy Hibbert and David West both had one as well).
• On Feb. 17, Paul George played in his first All-Star game and made the biggest impact any Pacers player ever has, with 17 points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals.
• In late February, after early-season struggles, Roy Hibbert raised his game and later would earn his way into the "elite center" discussion. He’d already been one of the best at defending the rim, but now had the offensive game to go with it. The 7-foot-2 center later made his presence felt in the playoffs, where many felt he showed that he was worth the maximum deal he signed before the season.
• During the last week of March, headed out West and returned with a four-game sweep, recording wins in Houston, Dallas, Phoenix and Los Angeles (Clippers). They wrapped up the regular season with a 49-32 record, one game short of the 82-game schedule. The Pacers were in Boston during the Marathon bombing, with some players just a few blocks away. That game, rightfully so, was canceled.
• The Pacers won their fifth Central Division title, their first since 2004. The most remarkable thing about the season the Pacers had was they did it without Danny Granger. He tried to come back from a knee injury for five games, but determined he still wasn’t right and needed another surgery. His time away gave George a greater opportunity and he flourished. Not only was George an All-Star, but he was also named the NBA’s Most Improved Player and to the All-Defensive Second Team and All-NBA Third Team.
• In the playoffs, they disposed of Atlanta in the first round. They wrapped up the series in six games and on the road, which snapped a 13-game losing streak in Atlanta. They then moved on to New York, and they handled them in six games, too.
There was nothing like the press conference following Game 6 in Indianapolis. Lance Stephenson had just posted a career-high 25 points and 10 rebounds against his New York foes, but when it came time for him to speak with the media, all five starters sat down for the press conference. It was fitting, because all five starters had led the team in scoring in at least one of the series wins. Their motto is “Togetherness,” and this exhibited just that.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers and Miami Heat went back-and-forth for seven games, with the Heat, who had home-court advantage, ultimately moving on. There were far too notable moments in the series to list, though George’s move around LeBron James and then jam on Chris ‘Birdman’ Andersen is a highlight for everything. That highlight is the final touch on the team’s current video before pregame introductions.
Everything the Pacers did over the summer and into the new season come October was fueled by that Game 7 loss. Players went back and watched the games, and said they came within about 10 to 12 minutes of defeating the Heat.
• Indiana’s offseason was much like its season: nonstop and very successful. Though associate Brian Shaw landed his first head-coaching gig with Denver and moved on, Vogel filled the vacancy with longtime head coach Nate McMillan; he also filled Jim Boylen's vacated spot with Popeye Jones.
• After a one year sabbatical, Larry Bird returned as President and Donnie Walsh, who filled in nicely, slid over to a consulting role. The team drafted Solomon Hill, signed C.J. Watson, who was Bird’s first target, along with Chris Copeland. In one of the more important moves, arguably just below the return of Bird, David West re-upped with the team for three years. West is the backbone of the team and along with Vogel, has helped shape the extraordinary culture inside the locker room.
• Bird has always kept a keen eye on savvy forward Luis Scola, so when Phoenix made him available, the Pacers pounced. Though they had to part with their 2014 first-round pick, Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green, it was a deal Bird knew he had to make.
• Before the 2013-14 campaign began, eight players and staff spent about a week in Los Angeles to train, but mostly to hang out and bond. The guys gel together quite well, and there’s a reason for it—they work at it and care for one another.
• Days before the preseason, the Pacers signed George to a five-year extension. It was a huge honor for George, the No. 10 pick in the 2010 draft, and was critical the Pacers got it completed before George’s fourth professional season. Both parties made out well and got the maximum deal done before camp commenced. The new deal kicks in next season.
• During the preseason, the Pacers journeyed east for games in the Philippines and Taiwan, part of NBA’s Global Games. The team lost their first five practice games but won their final three.
• It was finally on to the season, a redemption year for the Pacers. They made their goal crystal clear: Get the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference to secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. That would ensure a Game 7 would be played in their house, with the crowd behind them.
The Pacers started the new season with the best start in the league, 9-0. They won 16 of 17 games and it took them just 23 games to win 20. On top of that, they were undefeated in their first 11 home contests.
• Hibbert’s dominant rim protection has carried over from last season. More than a dozen games into the season, he had more blocks by himself than half the teams in The Association. Along the perimeter, Lance Stephenson recorded his first triple-double, and then two more. Meanwhile, there were just nine others across the league and no player had posted more than one.
• George’s numbers are up yet again this season, so much so that Clippers coach Doc Rivers said in early December that George deserved the Most Improved Player award, again, and would also be his MVP. George, the NBA’s top scorer in the third quarter of games, cracked his way into the top five in scoring and is on pace to become just the third player in league history to elevate his scoring average by at least four points for three consecutive seasons.
• For the first month of the season, Vogel was named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month and George earned the honor as a player. To put that in perspective, LeBron James won that award in five of six months last season.
• After missing the first 25 games of the season due to a strained calf, Granger is back in the lineup and eager to contribute. He was instrumental in the team’s rebuilding efforts so he’s focused on making a title push with this team.
• Due to the Pacers’ success, interest in the team has skyrocketed. FOX Sports Indiana’s ratings were up 113 percent in November over last year and the highest they had been since 2005. The Pacers’ first meeting with the Heat was the high-rated regular season game ever in the network’s 18 years of televising games, and NBA TV’s most-watched game ever.
• Through 14 home games, the Pacers have already had eight sellouts. They had nine all of last season. Attendance is up nearly nine percent to 93 percent capacity, or roughly 1,600 fans per game.
• Beyond what the Pacers have done on the court, what they did off the court was maybe more impressive. It’s rare that an off day goes by without a player or two being out in the community to give back. The organization donated more than 50,000 toys during the Holiday season, hosted their 16th-annual Come To Our House Thanksgiving dinner and took families of military personnel shopping. The list goes on and on.
George Hill received the NBA’s community assist award for October. He visited Haiti over the summer with Kids Against Hunger, gave Indianapolis kids supplies and shoes before a new school year and gave away Christmas toys for those in need where he grew up around 30th Street.
• Back to basketball, where the Pacers have been atop the Eastern Conference standings all season long and they’d like to stay there. It already appears the Pacers will win their sixth division crown and second in a row, and it seems destined for them to face the Heat in the playoffs for the third straight season. In the top-heavy East, the matchup would be in the conference finals with a trip to the Finals on line (their first since 2000).
• As we head into 2014, it would be wise to follow Larry Bird’s advice and enjoy the season at hand. It’s special, featuring a fun and optimistic coach and a locker room full of likeable players. For as great as 2013 was, 2014 is set up to be even more special. Soak it in.
I asked Paul George, Lance Stephenson, Frank Vogel, and Kevin Pritchard for their favorite moments of the year. Their thoughts:
Pacers General Manager Kevin Pritchard
1. Bird returning as president.
2. Indiana’s Game 6 win of the conference finals in Miami, evening the series at 3.
3. Indiana’s series-clinching Game 6 win over New York in the conference semi-finals.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel
1. Returning parts – Bird, West, George’s extension and his own.
2. Their Game 6 win over New York to advance to the conference finals.
1. The continuity, keyed by the return of Bird, Vogel, and West
2. Losing to Miami in Game 7 of the conference finals.
3. The Pacers’ Game 6 win at home over New York to propel them to the conference finals.
1. Bird returning.
2. George signing a five-year extension.
3. Game 6 over New York in the conference semi-finals, which he led the team in scoring with 25 points plus 10 rebounds.
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