CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 18: Tyler Hansbrough #50 of the Indiana Pacers puts up a shot over Loul Deng #9 of the Chicago Bulls in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at the United Center on April 18, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Nobody knew how good the Indiana Pacers were before last night. That may include the Pacers themselves.
By backing up their game one effort with a grind-it-out, fight-to-the-finish effort in Game2, the Indiana Pacers may have lost another game to the Chicago Bulls but they won over the NBA-observing world. The many young and inexperienced players on the Pacers showed their game one effort wasn't a fluke and that there is more talent and depth on the Pacers than their regular season output suggested. Young players like Paul George and Darren Collison are tapping into their potential before our very eyes.
At halftime, Charles Barkley captured that sentiment mentioning how the Pacers had far more quality talent on their roster than he realized. That they just need that oh-so-hard-to-find lead dog, crunch-time killer that we all know they're missing. Suddenly, the Pacers are the playoff darlings, in part because of some young, talented players that most are unfamiliar with showing their wares.
It also helps that they are playing to top seed in the East, so other fans want to see the Bulls tested and pushed to a long series, both to expose flaws and wear down the Bulls. By putting on a show on the big stage, we can look forward to more than zero nationally televised games next season. May even have an appearance or two on the Thursday night showcase games.
While the recognition is a great by product of the effort, the experience is what will really pay off for the Pacers.
They aren't just gaining experience by the game, their learning by the possession. Frank Vogel has his team competing at a higher level than I think even they thought was possible. There's no other way to explain so many weak, regular season games by this team when you see them playing a game like last night, when they didn't shoot it well, struggled in general on offense, lost Darren Collison but still found a way to stay in position to win late in the fourth quarter. That tells me this is less about overachieving in these two playoff games and more about underachieving for big chunks of the regular season.
But in hindsight, that underachievement makes some sense when you consider that Tyler Hansbrough (game one) and Paul George (game two) elevated their games on the playoff stage, when during the regular season they spent most of the time being told they weren't worthy of a significant role. Then once Frank Vogel changed all of that and turned to the young players they still had to prove they were worthy and learn how to play heavy minutes.
They're still learning, but watching Paul George chase around Derrick Rose and make him work all night was beautiful. It will surely expedite his development, at least at the defensive end of the floor. You don't think he'll be up for the challenge to guard any 1-3 player in the league next year after this? I also like the fact that he wasn't happy after the game, making an early morning stop in the gym after the team returned to Indy.
I just wish there weren't any "if only" moments from both games that altered the way the game was played but can't be blamed directly for the outcome. If only, Tyler Hansbrough wasn't knocked out for a stretch of game one. Yes, he returned and lit it up, but he was driving the Bulls nuts before leaving the game. His exit changed the tone of the game until he came back out and gave the Bulls front court a chance to catch their breath and get back in the game.
If only, Darren Collison didn't run into the baseline photog and sprain his ankle in game two. Impossible to project how it plays out, but DC's departure gave the Bulls a short-term boost and jumbled the Pacers' playing rotation causing problems as A.J. Price adjusted to going against Derrick Rose instead of C.J. Watson.
Hopefully DC returns, ready to go on Thursday. Suddenly, I don't mind the long layoff between games. Regardless, until the league tells them they can't play anymore, the Pacers have to keep grinding away, getting up to take another swing and matching the effort we've seen so far in the first two games.
We're done wondering if they can play with the Bulls. Now they need to win.