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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Pacers begin playoff run Saturday

Posted Friday, April 27, 2012, at 9:19 PM

It is time for the P word, and we are not talking about practice. But speaking of practice, did anyone see coach Larry Brown's press conference after getting hired at SMU and his mock rant about how much he loves practice? He said it numerous times, poking fun at his former player, enigmatic point guard Allen Iverson who had his own infamous rant about practice when he played for Brown in Philadelphia. Everybody thinks the 71-year old Brown is straight-laced, but that was pretty funny. He couldn't help but smile, taking a jab at the former Georgetown standout who took Brown and the 76ers to the NBA Finals in 2001.

But enough about one P word. It's time to move on to the P word of the day -- Playoffs.

For NBA fans, yeah I know you are far and few between, today and Sunday is like the first two days of March Madness.

There will be eight playoff games -- four Saturday and four Sunday -- featuring 16 teams that will begin a two-month quest (I know too long) toward winning an NBA title.

There will be 32 games over the next nine days to tip-off the playoffs as each squad begins the search for 16 victories needed to hoist the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June.

One of those 16 will be my Indiana Pacers, who have very quietly put together their first above .500 season since 2004-05.

Their 42-24 record in this strike-shortened season would equate to a 50-32 record over a regular 82-game slate.

That was the fifth best record in the entire league this season.

Larry Bird should win the Executive of the Year Award for the way he has put this team together, ridding the team of bad contracts and knucklehead players with a penchant for hanging out with guns at strip clubs at 3 a.m. Whether this is Bird's last season in charge of Indiana if you believe the rumors Bird had denied, he did what he said he would do -- turn this team around and make them competitive again.

The first was the decision to move up Frank Vogel from assistant last year and then to give him the reigns for real this season.

In 38 games last year (20-18 and a trip to the playoffs) and 66 this year, Vogel has amassed in 62-42 record (.596 winning percentage).

Not just the wins and losses, it has been about changing the culture of the Blue and Gold that Vogel can put on his resume.

The Pacers were a run-and-gun, 3-point shooting team that played no defense under Jim O'Brien and now they are a team that can beat you defensively, offensively and on the boards.

Whatever kool aid Vogel is serving, the Pacers are drinking it up. Beat reporters say this group is tighter off the floor than any team in Indy in years.

He will not get an inkling in the Coach of the Year balloting as Gregg Popovich in San Antonio or Tom Thibodeau of Chicago will win the award. Both are deserving as they posted the best record in each conference despite injuries for the Bulls and blending many new and old faces for the Spurs.

But Vogel, who did earn Coach of the Month honors in April as the Pacers finished by winning 12 of 15 games, took a team that was under .500 last year to the fifth-best record in the league. The Heat, Bulls, Lakers, Celtics and Thunder were among those to fall at the hands of the Pacers this year.

Bird made some great acquisitions this year. Signing free agent David West away from the Celtics was a stroke of genius, giving the Pacers a first-rate starting power forward and workmanlike veteran who can score and rebound.

Trading talented but uninterested swing man Brandon Rush for big man Lou Amundson turned out to be another great move. Rush would have played out his final year in Indy, searching for a spot in the rotation.

Amundson not only turned out to be a fan favorite, but the 6-9 banger, who has played valuable minutes at power forward and center, has been able to contribute more than even hoped with the unexpected retirement of Jeff Foster.

The draft-night trade of first-round pick Kawhi Leonard for former Indy Broad Ripple and IUPUI standout George Hill from the San Antonio Spurs was another move that did not make any national ripples, but was just what the Pacers needed. Leonard might turn out to be an All-Star, but George is a perfect fit, now.

Hill is an assuming hometown hero that quietly goes about his business of playing both guards positions, subtly defending his behind off, and contributing both as a starter and reserve. He moved into the starting lineup for then injured Darren Collison and the Pacers have won 8 of 10 since. Hill will start against Orlando in the first round of the playoffs at 7 p.m. Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The other move came at the trade deadline. They gave up a second-round pick and cash for former Suns guard Leandro Barbosa, the Brazilian Blur.

Barbosa, who was able to be acquired from Toronto because of the Pacers being under the salary cap, has been a perfect fit off of the Indiana bench. His unorthodox shot finds the basket with great regularity and has been the scoring punch that Bird has been looking to lead the second unit.

With all of those moves, you still have Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, Paul George, Tyler Hansbrough and Dahntay Jones, giving Indy one of the deepest rotations in the league.

The Pacers would seem to have advantage over Orlando, who will be without injured center Dwight Howard. But coach Stan Van Gundy will have the Magic ready, bet on it. They still feature playoff savvy veteran Hedo Turkoglu, 3-point specialists Ryan Anderson and J.J. Redick and point guard Jameer Nelson running the show.

They are capable of making 10, 12 or 14 threes in a game, which gives the underdog a fighting chance.

Hopefully the Pacers can win Saturday and Monday at home and put the pressure on the Magic.

But no matter what happens, Indiana has made progress and hopefully this is just the beginning of good things to come for Pacer fans. I am sure Vogel and his players would love a shot at the Heat and then possibly the Bulls, but lets take care of the Magic first.

B.J. Hargis is the sports editor of the Greene County Daily World. He can be reached at (812) 240-1993, ext. 12 or at hargisbj@gmail.com.

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