Last year at this time, no one had any idea what to expect from the Indiana Pacers. The team was 3-1 on New Year's Day 2012 with the lockout-shortened season in its infant stages.
David West was still an unknown commodity since he was just returning from a major knee injury and trying to fit in with a new roster. Paul George was still too young. Larry Bird was still engaged in an effort to improve the roster while George Hill and Roy Hibbert were working off the final year of their rookie contracts. Lance Stephenson? Still leading cheers from the bench.
Fast forward to the end of the year and Larry Bird is gone while David West is a beast. Hibbert and Hill were paid and dealing with a new dynamic as two of the team's top paid players and in Hill's case, a full-time starting point guard for the first time in his NBA career.
The thoughts of a promising 2013 can be seen in the difference Paul George and Lance Stephenson are now making on the court. Still plenty young. Still plenty of potential. But still scratching the surface with plenty of room to improve.
So what were your favorite highlights from 2012? Here's a few things that stuck out for me.
- Have to start with the way the Pacers finished the the lockout-shortened season, winning 12 of 15 games in April to finish as a three seed in the Eastern Conference with the fifth best record in the NBA.
- Beating the Orlando Magic in the first round. The Magic were tragically short-handed and headed for a rebuild, yet the Pacers made things far too interestign. But in the end, the current version of the blue and gold were able to get over the hump and win their first playoff series together.
- Pushing the Miami Heat to the brink in the second round. The Heat had no answer for the Pacers early in the series and I vividly remember Roy Hibbert rolling to the hoop for a dunk early in Game 4 as the Pacers built a big lead they would later relinquish. At that moment, when Hibbert flushed the finish and the Heat were left looking at one another, it appeared the Pacers wouldn't be denied. Then Dwyane Wade showed up...
- The Pacers beating the Oklahoma City Thunder in their only meeting. Indiana just buried the Thunder before Kevin Durant rallied the Western Conference champs to make things interesting. Durant finished with 44 points but the play of James Harden stuck out for me in this one. Harden had no interest in playing defense or joining Durant in fighting to the finish. Love the guy's offensive game but that scarred my thoughts about him ever being a player capable of leading a team on his own. Fortunately, Harden is still young with plenty of time to mature into that type of player. We'll see...
- The Pacers frustrated and ran away from the Los Angeles Clippers while exposing Blake Griffin as a flopping, whiny player that was simply annoying. Another guy that is going to need help around him to succeed in the league. No doubt he has more than enough help this year as the Clips and their vastly improved second unit can't be beat heading into 2013.
- Larry Bird ended the season sounding like a team exec looking forward to pushing his improving team to yet another level. By the end of the summer, Bird stepped down and Donnie Walsh was back in the Fieldhouse along with Kevin Pritchard to run the Pacers. Was it Bird's back? Frustration with Herb Simon? Just ready to move on? Will Bird be back? With the Pacers? All remaining questions regarding Bird that may never be fully answered.
- Roy Hibbert and George Hill signed big deals with the Pacers to keep the starting unit together. Hibbert didn't get a big offer from the Pacers but when Portland offered the max another team could offer, the Pacers came in and matched as opposed to losing their center with nothing in return. Hibbert has struggled mightily on offense since the signing and just how much of an impact he can make on both ends of the floor will dramatically influence how much the Pacers can improve going forward. As for Hill, after plenty of complaints about the 5-year deal for a player not accustomed to playing point guard, Hill has been a strong presence for the Pacers, not only leading the team but stepping up to make big shots at times and single-handedly securing a few W's this season.
- The Pacers organization was finally recognized by the Basketball Hall of Fame with Reggie Miller and Mel Daniels earning induction to the Hall.
- The Pacers lost some heart and soul last season after a chronic back problem forced Jeff Foster to retire. The Pacers are still trying to fill the void left by Foster in the middle. I recently saw Austin Croshere and Foster dining at Sullivan's and couldn't help but wonder if Foster would have 20 or 30 regular season games and a playoff run in him this year.
- The Pacers are actually using the D-League and giving rookies Miles Plumlee and Orlando Johnson some game time with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
- Danny Granger revealed a knee injury that started bothering him in the playoffs against the Heat. After trying to give it a go to start the season, Granger had to shut it down and get treatment on his knee leaving him sidelined until mid-February...hopeully. The Pacers have found a way to survive without Granger and if he can return to give the Pacers a boost, 2013 may have more surprising moments in store.
Plenty of other things happened this year. What will you remember most about the Indiana Pacers in 2012.