The Indiana Pacers may have been swept by the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the NBA playoffs last spring, but you never would have known it to hear Frank Vogel tell it. The Pacers' head coach let everyone know during the series that each game was a battle, and that he expected to win every night. His charges seemed to believe his message, because Indiana easily could have won any of the first three games, and they gave the Bulls fits each time out. For the first time in a long time, I got excited about basketball in May, and I felt pretty good about the Pacers' outlook. The Blue and Gold carried that bulldog mentality into the shortened 2011-12 season, with Vogel and his players insisting that they could hang with any team in the league, including the vaunted Bulls in Miami Heat. That sentiment gained a little more bite on April 22 when the New York Knicks defeated the Atlanta Hawks, dropping Atlanta three games behind the Pacers in the standings. More importantly, the Knicks' victory helped the Pacers lock down the third playoff seed in the Eastern Conferencing, slotting them behind only Chicago and Miami.
Significantly, Pacers' lofty perch guarantees them home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, with the sixth seed set to sweep into town for the first two games. Right now, the Orlando Magic hold that slot, but they are fading fast without injured center Dwight Howard. If the Magic can hold off the Knicks, then the Pacers might be able to romp through the first series. Although Indiana and Orlando split four games this season, Howard's absence makes the Magic a drastically different, and weaker, opponent than the one the Pacers know. A healthy Knicks team would probably be a tougher out, but you never really know how matchups will work out in the playoffs. I'm sure the Bulls thought that Indiana would be a pushover in 2011.
No matter who shows up to the tip-off at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers have made a remarkable turnaround since Vogel took the reins in the middle of last winter. Back then, Indiana was inconsistent in all phases of the game, terrible in some areas and seemed to lack direction. Vogel's message to the team was that they had to play hard and physical above all else, and then let their talents go to work in competing with the team in front of them. Armed with a new sense of confidence and a couple of key additions (David West, George Hill, Leandro Barbosa), the current Pacers have a purpose on the court and are rarely overwhelmed.
Don't look now, Pacers fans, but the good old days may be back. Cue the IndyCar soundtrack in the fieldhouse!
Adam Hughes was raised, and still lives, in rural Indiana. He has been a Pacers fan since the early 1980s and has witnessed the rise and fall of a great NBA franchise. He follows the current club closely and is happy to see the Pacers begin their next ascent.