(picture via www.washingtonpost.com)
As I looked at the clock wind down during Game 7 of the NBA Finals this season, I could only help but wonder.
"What if the Pacers had won just one more game."
I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only person thinking that, and while this Finals series this year was one of the best ever and I enjoyed the great basketball (no matter how bad I wanted Miami to lose), my mind wandered off to a situation where Indiana didn't turn the ball over twice a minute in the first half and pulled of the Eastern Conference Finals Game 7 upset.
I was thinking the entire Finals series, "That should be us."
It was a sort of bitter-sweet feeling about this season, though. It sucks that we came so close and lost, but it was wonderful that we got so far. Of course everyone had been saying this since the season ended for the Pacers, and even some national analysts gave the Pacers credit for their performance and their bright future.
Now, we've been spotted. Now, people know who we are. Now, we have expectations. And that's the best thing we could ask for. Because there was a time when there wasn't any reason to think we could win a title.
Such a short time ago, the 2010-2011 season was a year when the Pacers weren't expected to do anything. Indiana ended up making the Playoffs, and playing the Bulls pretty well for 5 games before being eliminated. It was a good performance, a good start for a young team. Everyone was happy after that year.
The 2011-2012 season ended with Indiana being ranked 3rd in the East and having a top 5 record in the NBA. Indiana handled Orlando in 5 games, and then it was on to the match up with the other Florida team. The Miami Heat were looking for their first title in their new era, and the Pacers were looking to show Miami, and the rest of the NBA for that matter, that they were for real.
Then, Game 2 happened. The "Dallas-like celebration" happened. Many Pacers fans thought it couldn't get any better than this, right?
Everyone was happily proven wrong. Game 3 of that series is still my favorite game this franchise has played since the Finals in 2000. It was the first Gold Out, the start of a tradition! It was Roy Hibbert's official coming out party, it was a great all-around team performance. It was Pacers basketball! It truly doesn't get much better for a Pacers fan. There was a real feeling that we could really make a run that year.
We didn't win another game that postseason. It was a fun ride, but it was short. Too short. There was a part of Pacers fans that were happy with how far the team had come, but there was another part that left that sick taste in all of our mouths. That we could do better. It was a feeling that most Pacers fans hadn't felt in a long time.
I was not the only person disappointed that we didn't win that series in 2012. We had the lead, we had the blueprint, and all we had to do was close out a team with LeBron James on it with 2 wins in 4 games. Easier said than done, but it was disappointing that the Pacers didn't win that series, and that disappointment was the best thing that could have happened to the Pacers.
Being disappointed meant that there were now expectations, and that the Pacers were good enough to draw expectations. The Pacers officially arrived when that disappointment sank in that we were better than how far we went that season.
Now, after losing to the dreaded Heat again in the playoffs this past season, that disappointment had come back to Indiana. It felt sicker and even worse, because we were that much closer to a title opportunity.
This team has come so far in three short seasons. From fringe team that was closer than ever to leaving the state of Indiana, to a legitimate championship contender. The Pacers have never lifted the Larry O'Brien trophy, in fact it's only been in our building once (2000 Finals Game 5, had the Lakers won they would have celebrated on Indiana's home court), but now the Pacers are closer than ever to achieving that goal. At this point, is anything less than winning a world title acceptable for this team?
It is a valid argument that the Pacers have proved they can beat Miami, and with the expected improvement from the core of Paul George, Hibbert, Lance Stephenson and the additions of CJ Watson and Chris Copeland will help the bench, along with the return of former All-Star Danny Granger this team seems to have all the pieces.
You could also argue that the Pacers need to get past Miami, and a healthy Chicago for that matter, to be a championship or bust team. Indiana also has a few seasons left before they could be in their glory seasons, so it isn't this core's last chance to win a title.
What do you guys think? Are the Pacers a good enough team that anything short of a championship is an unsuccessful season?