Pretender. Over the last few seasons, it is possible that this word may be too mild to accurately describe some of the rest of the league’s opinion of the Indiana Pacers.
In the eyes of some, the Pacers were that team that barely squeaked into the playoffs with a losing record in the 2010-2011 season. They were that squad that was naive enough to believe that they could actually have a chance of competing with the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs. They were perceived as that irksome group of players that tried to act tough. They were that team that dared to whoop and holler on another team’s home court after a well-earned victory. They had that player on the end of the bench who had the gall to taunt LeBron James. They certainly had no right to refer to the league’s finest as…gasp… "just the next team that is in our way." They most definitely were no one’s actual rival.
If this summation is not convincing enough, take the Pacers’ opponents at their word:
"I'll never forget how they celebrated just from winning this game. I can't wait to play them again." – Derrick Rose (via ESPN)
"I’ve said all along, I don’t like the Pacers. I know that none of them were going to do anything. Just play ball it is part of the game – a hard foul, everybody is getting fouled out there. (They think) they are so tough." – Kevin Love (via ESPN)
"I heard they wanted to be like the Dallas Mavericks, in a sense. I saw their little celebration at the end of (Game 2). I don’t know if they didn’t expect to win, but every night we go out on the court, we expect to win. They say their identity, they say they want to be like Dallas. So they celebrated like Dallas, I guess."—Dwyane Wade (via ESPN)
"It’s Boston, Chicago more than Indiana. We’ve only had one series with those guys. So I would say it is Boston… Indiana is not a rival at this point." – LeBron James (via nba.com)
"I don't understand what he's saying. But we're not just another team. That's not true. He said we're just another team in their way. We're a great team." – LeBron James(via ESPN)
At worst, the Pacers were viewed as bothersome, physical wannabes, at best, they were looked over as the also-ran.
But, oh, what a difference winning makes.
After taking away the Central Division crown from the Chicago Bulls, pushing the defending champions to a decisive Game 7 in the ECF, and making a few tweaks to a championship caliber roster, the Pacers have earned a whole new reputation amongst the league’s elite.
Following last year’s impressive showing in the postseason, it seems the Pacers have been recognized as a member of the league’s upper echelon. Now, they are the team with the target on their backs. The team with which other squads now need to react.
Just look at the difference in sentiment amongst the Pacer’s elite competition:
"Honestly, my motivation this summer was the playoff exit. I vowed to myself that I would never let that happen again. I would never let my team down and be in that situation again. That's what I've been thriving off of. I will never allow that to happen. That's been my motivation." – Tyson Chandler in response to being over powered by Roy Hibbert and the Pacers in the Eastern Conference semi-finals (via New York Daily News)
"They proved their point to the league. They made a difference. They made it far last year to the conference finals and they have young players where, we’re gonna grow old playing against each other in this league, especially with the team they have." – Derrick Rose (via Scott Agness of pacers.com)
"Indiana added talent, Chicago is bringing back their best player, Brooklyn threw all their chips in — but we want to be one of the great teams." – Dwyane Wade acknowledging the Pacers as a contender (via Miami Herald)
There you have it, the Pacers have proven themselves. They are young, hungry, team oriented, physical, highly motivated, and, last season, they made their mark on the league’s elite. They have been recognized. Transformed from pretender to bona fide contender. Hopefully, by next June, they will no longer be the also-ran.