Posted: March 30, 2008
They care, even if nobody else does. These Indiana Pacers are still playing, still trying, still caring deeply about what's left of their mostly dismal season, and don't dare suggest to them that tanking is really their best option.
This was a couple of minutes after the Pacers' 123-115 home victory over the New Jersey Nets on Friday night. Players were showering and dressing, and most reporters stood around loitering, checking out an NCAA Tournament game playing on one of the TVs.
"Turn on the Bulls-Hawks game,'' guard Travis Diener told one of the locker-room attendants.
Who watches Bulls-Hawks, except maybe for the Bulls and Hawks themselves and possibly some degenerate gamblers with cash on the outcome?
"Tell me again,'' I asked Diener. "Who do you guys want to win here?''
Diener turned. "We need Chicago to win,'' he said.
Yes, right. The Atlanta Hawks are in eighth place. The Pacers are 10th and the Bulls 11th. Sometimes you forget or, in my case, lose interest.
I also wanted to ask Diener what was up with the facial growth he's been sporting in recent weeks -- puberty is such a special time in a boy's life -- but I had gotten caught up in the Bulls-Hawks action.
Give the Pacers this much: They are still trying, even if trying isn't what's in the long-term interest of their franchise. They haven't gone in the tank, like Miami and New York and other franchises more concerned with their ping-pong ball allotment. They are still competing like the eighth spot is a holy grail of sorts. There are a number of players in this room who haven't sniffed the playoffs, players who want this chance, and are playing like it.
Not smart, but commendable.
Let's be honest here: The best thing that could happen is the Pacers go, say, 3-7 in the final 10 games, earn a spot in the NBA Lottery and take their chances.
If they reach the eighth spot, that means a quick and relatively painless exit at the hands of the Boston Celtics. The Simons might like the postseason payday, and the guys in my business might enjoy a couple of days of eating in Little Italy, but for this franchise, the best option is the lottery.
It's enough to make you wonder if it's best for Jermaine O'Neal, currently the world's biggest fashion model, to even bother returning down the stretch. On the one hand, it's important for future trade partners to see that O'Neal is healthy and productive. On the other hand, if he's healthy and productive, the Pacers might just follow up this latest 6-4 stretch with another nice run of 10 games.
For those of you still living and dying with this playoff push, here is the breakdown:
The Hawks, now eighth in the Eastern Conference at 32-40, finish the season with five games against teams .500 or better, with five games at home and five on the road. Currently, they're 21/2 games up on the Pacers.
The Nets, who might be the biggest underachievers in the league, are a half-game ahead of the Pacers. (And essentially are ahead by one additional game because they own the tiebreaker.) The Nets are going to have it rough: After Saturday night's loss to Phoenix, they have eight games remaining -- three at home, five on the road and six against teams above .500.
The Pacers are in 10th place, and while they're not dead just yet, they surely aren't feeling all that frisky. The schedule, though, looks friendly. They have nine games left -- five at home, four on the road and just three against teams above .500.
Nobody cares? That's understood. And that's understandable. Combine some early-season off-the-court issues with injuries and a losing team, and there's not a lot to recommend this team.
But this much should be said: They are giving it everything they've got. Mike Dunleavy keeps making his case for Most Improved Player. Danny Granger shows why he's the future cornerstone of this franchise. Troy Murphy, who's never been a personal favorite as a player, is emerging as an automatic double-double guy. And in recent games, Shawne Williams, who would be a junior on the current Memphis team, is starting to show what he's got.
"We've had teams here before, they had a lot more talent, but they didn't play as hard as this team,'' center Jeff Foster said. "Our problem is, we just don't have enough talent right now.''
Which is the point entirely. They don't have enough talent, and they are especially lacking when it comes to having the talent to defend. They don't have a soul who can guard the ball on the perimeter. And they don't have anybody who can patrol the lane.
But they're trying. They truly are trying. They may just try hard enough, and play well enough, to screw up the whole thing and blow the lottery pick. For the sake of the franchise, you hope it doesn't happen. But for a bunch of guys who still care even if nobody else does, a spot in the postseason seems like an appropriate payoff.