[size=18:c8c8e3e3f1]Bird, Walsh must make some changes[/size]
Now, Larry Bird knows what he's got, who he's got, who he can count upon when the games are tight and the stakes are high. He had his suspicions all season -- haven't we all? -- watching his team achieve and even overachieve. But that's another one of the great things about coming within two victories of the NBA Finals. Those initial suspicions tend to get confirmed in the bubbling cauldron of playoff basketball.
"Ohhhhh, yeah," Bird said after the Pacers' season ended Tuesday night in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. "It's a whole new ballgame now. Because you've seen them in the tough times, you've seen them in the good times, you've seen them in each playoff round. And you sort of separate the guys who you know can get it done from the guys who can't."
It's unlikely that next year's team will look dramatically different from this year's team, and for good reason: There's no reason to blow up a young, 61-victory team.
But there will be changes.
There must be changes.
More than anything, the Pacers need to find Reggie Miller's heir apparent.
[color=darkred:c8c8e3e3f1]When I recently asked Donnie Walsh if Reggie's replacement was on this roster, he said no.[/color] That means the brain trust is going to have to go outside to find someone who can shoot from the outside, stretch defenses, make room for Jermaine O'Neal and Ron Artest to operate, and cover the likes of Richard Hamilton.
Bird, naturally, wasn't going to share his specific vision for this team, but that doesn't stop the rest of us from playing armchair general manager.
• It's time to move Al Harrington.
Good kid, great talent, but the Pacers still cannot count on him to be consistent when it counts. His game too often mirrors his emotions: too high one game, too low the next.
Make no mistake, Game 6 was an important night for Harrington. He got to start, something he's been pining to do for years. And despite a fast start, he didn't get it done, saddled early with foul problems.
For years now, we've been saying the Pacers have to somehow break the logjam at forward, where Austin Croshere, Jonathan Bender, Harrington and others are always fighting for minutes.
Well, this is the time, and Harrington, who is eminently marketable, is the man. If anybody on this team can fetch the kind of player the Pacers need, it's Harrington.
• It's time to recognize that if the Pacers want a "Ring For Reggie," they're going to have to do it with Miller coming off the bench. Assuming that Miller is willing to return under those conditions. After Game 6, he refused to comment on his future.
There's no reason for Miller to retire if he still has the desire to play. This isn't exactly Willie Mays, circling haplessly under a fly ball during the waning days of his career. But the organization stayed with him too long as a starter.
It's like the coaches looked at him and saw the Reggie of 1998, while the rest of us saw a guy who was getting beaten defensively and passing up open shots. Except for the game-winner in Game 1, this was a nightmare series for Miller, who had his layup blocked in Game 2, and saw his mini-me, Hamilton, become a star on his watch.
He might be a starter somewhere, but he's not a starter here, not for a team that has designs on a championship.
If that's blasphemy, so be it. But it's time to make room for somebody else, whether it's Fred Jones or somebody else.
"Only Reggie knows," Bird said when asked about Miller's future. "Whatever he wants to do. I've always said, only a player knows when it's time (to retire) and it's totally up to Reggie and whatever he thinks.
"I have no idea what he'll do. I think he had fun and he had an opportunity to get back to the Finals. If he wants to come back, he can come back. We'll take him with open arms."
Now, a lot of fans will argue that it's time to cut bait with Bender, who follows up every tantalizing performance with the kinds of hellish four-minute stints we saw in Game 5.
Except I don't see it happening. Bird likes Bender too much -- always has -- and the Pacers have invested too much time and money to cut the cord now. Thing is, the only way they'll find out if he can produce on a consistent basis is by giving him consistent minutes, and the only way that will happen is by moving Harrington.
Bird has had an entire season to monitor these players. And so has coach Rick Carlisle, who came along late last summer and still, somehow, choreographed a 13-victory improvement. They know they can't sit quietly, not while Detroit is looking like it will remain a power for years, not while Miami and Milwaukee and Cleveland and others are moving up fast.
This, clearly, will be a different kind of summer.