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Pacers finish strong, but out of playoffs again

Posted Thursday, April 30, 2009, at 6:45 PM

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was just slightly more than two weeks ago when the Indiana Pacers completed the 2008-09 season with a 115-108 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks here at Conseco Fieldhouse.

For the third year in a row, the Pacers are not part of the NBA Playoffs. This was the second straight season they finished 36-46, three games behind the Detroit Pistons for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

But despite not getting beat by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round, the reward that Detroit received for making the post season and the fact the Pacers did not improve in the win-loss column, I still think it was a successful year.

The Pacers did finish over .500 in 2009 -- 26-25. But they could not overcome a 10-21 start. They were 15-13 after the All-Star break.

Except for a four-game stretch in March when they played their worst ball of the season, the "Blue and Gold" were competitive night in and night out. The Pacers played in 21 games decided by three points or less, the most in the NBA. That was a good thing, but they lost more close games than anybody else in pro basketball would have to be viewed as a negative.

But the Pacers had wins over five of the six division winners, including the four teams with the best records (Cleveland, LA Lakers, Boston and Orlando).

Indiana competed without Mike Dunleavy for all but 18 games, who eventually had season-ending knee surgery leaving next year and his future in basketball in doubt. He was their best player in 2007-08.

The Pacers averaged over 105 points per game, placing them in the top six in the NBA. But their defense was among the worst, as they allowed just over 106 per night. Until they get even average on the defensive end of the floor, it will be tough to become more than a lottery team.

But there were many bright spots this season. Danny Granger, the 26-year old swing man, had his coming out party this year. The 6-8 Granger finished the season by averaging 25.8 points per game, placing him among the leaders in the league. He shot over 40 percent from 3-point range and almost 88 at the line. He actually led the Pacers in blocked shots at 1.45 per game.

He made the All-Star team and was the first NBA player to ever raise his scoring average by five points in three consecutive seasons.

If Indiana didn't have a star, they do now.

Former Notre Dame standout Troy Murphy had the best year of his pro career, as he became the first player in the history of the league to finish in the top five in rebounding and 3-point percentage. Pacer owner Larry Bird finished in the top 10 in those two categories three times as a member of the Boston Celtics, but never in the top five.

Murphy also broke Clark Kellogg's team record for double-doubles in a season (49). He broke Jermaine O'Neal's record for defensive rebounds in a season and Kellogg's record for total rebounds in one year. He average 14.3 points, 11.8 rebounds while shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc.

Point guards T.J. Ford (14.9) and Jarrett Jack (13.1) and Marquis Daniels (13.6) all had career-high scoring averages. The Pacers have said they would like to get bigger at point guard, but Ford and Jack both had their moments. Jack, who took over as the starting point guard late in the season, averaged 17 points, six assists, four rebounds while shooting 50 percent in the final month.

Both more than replaced Jamaal Tinsley. He is still on the roster, not for lack of trying to pawn him off on someone, and owed over $14 million over the next two years, but was not part of the team in 2008-09 and won't be in the future.

Rookie forward Brandon Rush and rookie center Roy Hibbert both made an impact. Hibbert started 42 games and Rush 19. They combined to play over 38 minutes a night and were both in the starting line-up over the final weeks of the season.

Rush scored 29 points twice. He scored 27 on 11-for-17 firing against Cleveland in the final week of the season.

In the finale against the Bucks, his 3-point shooting keyed a 43-20 edge in the fourth quarter as the Pacers rallied from 18 points down. He made 4 of 6 treys that night, much to the chagrin of Bucks fan Gene Hall.

The 7-1 Hibbert, who at times appears gangly and clumsy, ended up averaging over seven points and three rebounds per game. He blocked 10 shots in the last three games.

He reportedly is one of the hardest working Pacers and I think he can make a solid NBA center.

The Pacers will have no worse than the 13th pick in this year's draft and if they get someone as good as Rush and Hibbert, it should help upgrade the roster.

As I had talked with people who are not necessarily Pacer fans, they all told me that the Pacers were fun to watch and entertaining. As a result, attendance was up over 2,000 per game.

I was one of those at Conseco when they outscored the Bucks by 23 points in the final 12 minutes to end the season. Although it was virtually a meaningless win, it was still a lot of fun -- at least for one night.

There were no off-court problems this year, another big plus.

As each team ends their season, they always starting thinking about the future. I think Bird had a good off-season with the seven new faces he brought in last year.

I know he will be tweaking the roster again this summer. I just hope "my Pacers," too many years invested as a fan to give up now, keep moving toward respectability, a .500-plus season and the playoffs.

Man can still dream can't he?

B.J. Hargis is sports editor of the Greene County Daily World. He can be reached at hargisbj@yahoo.com or at (812) 847-4487, ext. 12.


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