This week, SB Nation NBA is embarking on project called, “Titleless: The quest to find the best NBA team to never win a championship.” Yesterday was the debut of the “Overachiever” division, which had the lovable 2012-13 Pacers, of Paul George-dunking-on-Birdman lore, as the No. 6 seed. Today, is the unveiling of the “Not Good Enough” region, featuring at the seventh-seed what we — or, at least I — believe to be the best Pacers team to never win a championship: The 1997-1998 team, which lasted until the final minutes of Game 7 against the “Last Dance” Chicago Bulls.
Outmatched is a fitting word for what happened to the Pacers on the glass in Game 7 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals. Not so much because of what happened under the rim, but rather because of the war of attrition for breathing room that was constantly being waged on the perimeter.
Though Dennis Rodman and Luc Longley both battled foul trouble (as did Rik Smits), Chicago still managed to outrebound Indiana 50 to 34, with a mammoth 22-4 advantage on second chance opportunities. With Scottie Pippen pulling down six offensive rebounds and Michael Jordan snaring five, the Pacers paid dearly for succumbing to an area of the game where they had been middling all season, as the Bulls — doing what champions do — still found a way to win despite shooting 38 percent from the field and going 24-of-41 at the charity stripe.
But, here’s the thing: Rebounding, in and of itself, wasn’t why the Bulls won; it was a byproduct of why they won. In order to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, and not just make it tough on Chicago to do so for the sixth time in eight years, the Pacers had to compensate for a smaller margin of error, against a suffocating defense, with constant shifts of inside-out and off-ball gravity — which was exhausting, but also emblematic of how hard it was to last seven games against the league’s most iconic dynasty.
For instance, when Rik Smits and Dale Davis weren’t forcing double-teams, and sometimes even when they were, it wasn’t enough for Reggie to just be a great shooter; he also had to be a great screener.
Because Pippen wasn’t just defending Mark Jackson; he was shading Jackson away from Miller’s side of the floor.
Likewise, Jordan wasn’t just trailing Miller around picks; he was purposefully cutting under on pindowns, with his inside arm extended, so as to get up close and personal with the sharpshooter on the other side.
And, when those things weren’t happening, Pippen was stunting toward Miller once the pass occurred.
Think Jackson should just be able to glide to the rim, there? Think again. With a preference for floating lobs up to Davis off of straight-line drives, Longley knew to jab just long enough at the then 33-year-old point guard to get him off his rhythm, thereby causing the resulting tear-drop to fall short.
That’s what happens over a long, hard-fought series when teams have ample time to get to know each other, and that’s what made Miller’s star, and the surrounding team-balance, shine even brighter on plays when he still managed to shake himself free.
Consider, for instance, that to this day, though the players have all obviously changed and Larry Bird has transitioned from coach to team-execute, and now, to serving in an advisory capacity, the Pacers continue to carry a torch for zipper sets in big games — except with one very notable difference.
Last season, without Victor Oladipo’s speed on hand to come off of down screens and immediately flow into pick-and-roll like electricity pulsating through a cord, Indiana would haphazardly try to run Bojan Bogdanovic off the same play and then expect him to be able to create against a switch (from the logo!) instead of finding ways to empower him to shoot.
Now, watch Miller. As soon as he comes off of the zipper set, he flies off of a running slip for Jackson and then turns in the opposite direction of the pass, albeit with incredibly fundamental against the grain footwork, and splashes from three.
Or, how about, here, when he set an inverted pick for Smits as Davis was posting up, so that he could peel himself loose at the top of the key and (gasp!) attack off the dribble?!?
With multiple potential sink holes for defenders to fall into, those are the types of plays where it appeared as though moments of great offense would be good enough to topple a great team’s great defense; but, doing so called for immense stamina. Stamina, which – surprise, surprise – was also required to finish stops with rebounds and box-out Chicago’s one-two punch.
And yet, though they got outscored 24-3 in second-chance points, and despite the fact that Miller ran out of gas in the fourth quarter, scoring zero points on only one field goal attempt, the Pacers, leading by as many as 13 and down by only two with 2:02 to play, were still within striking distance of ending the Bulls’ championship reign on their home floor.
For that reason, and because it’s easy to question what may have been if they hadn’t tried to steal rest for Miller in the second quarter with a nine-point lead, (and Smits in foul trouble) when Jordan was on the bench, the 1998 Pacers deserve not only the honor of being the first of many Pacers teams to come just short of knocking off an all-time great; but also distinction as the best Pacers team to never win a championship.
Almost is never enough, but sometimes — at least in retrospect — it can still be incredibly satisfying.