INDIANAPOLIS — Reggie Miller doesn’t give the Indiana Pacers much of a chance in their first-round playoff series against the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
The clutch shooter who helped put the Pacers on the map before his retirement is happy that his beloved team has reached postseason play for the first time since 2006, but even he admits the odds are stacked against them. The Bulls had the best record in the league this season and are on a tear heading into Saturday’s Game 1 in Chicago.
The young Pacers, meanwhile, are the only team in the playoffs with a losing record.
“Hopefully, they’ll be successful,” said Miller, a TNT NBA analyst. “I doubt it, but they can lick their wounds together, and that’s how a team grows.”
The Pacers are aware that they are heavy underdogs, and it has gotten under their collective skin.
“We hear people talking about Chicago’s second-round matchup, who they’re going to play,” Indiana center Roy Hibbert said. “We hear that. That’s in the back of our minds.”
“We hear it, and rightfully so,” Indiana point guard Darren Collison added. “We’re the last seed in the playoffs. They’re supposed to say that. It don’t matter.”
Pacers interim coach Frank Vogel hasn’t hesitated to use Indiana’s underdog status as a tool.
“This team has succeeded a lot this year by feeling like they’ve been disrespected, told they’re not good enough, and it drives them,” he said.
Reaching the playoffs is an important step for the franchise, which has been rebuilding since the brawl between Pacers players and Detroit Pistons fans at The Palace of Auburn Hills in 2004. Numerous issues in the following years led the team to part with its nucleus of Ron Artest, Jermaine O’Neal, Stephen Jackson and Jamaal Tinsley.
After the overhaul, the team became extremely young. Just one Pacers starter, Danny Granger, has been in the league for more than three years. That’s why Pacers president Larry Bird, a three-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, said this playoff experience is a key part of Indiana’s rebuilding effort.
“I knew after my first playoff experience in the early ’80s that I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to win a championship,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for these young guys to get some experience, and we’ll see what happens.”
The opportunity almost didn’t come.
The Pacers fired coach Jim O’Brien after a 17-27 start, and things were uncertain — Miller said those situations are usually “death sentences.”
Vogel took over, and the confident 37-year-old immediately declared that the Pacers were going to make the playoffs. He re-established Hibbert, a skilled 7-foot-2 center, as a go-to player. He gave Collison more freedom to create and replaced the team’s constant ill-advised 3-point shots with “smashmouth basketball,” a style that emphasizes attacking the basket to take advantage of the team’s athletic ability.
The Pacers responded by winning seven of their first 10 under their new leader before the All-Star break. The mood in the locker room changed as Vogel’s confidence filtered down to his players.
“It was a pretty soft schedule, but still, a win is a win in this league,” Miller said. “What it did is it gained confidence for coach Vogel and for the assistants.”
Vogel started taking chances, eventually moving rookie Paul George and second-year forward Tyler Hansbrough into the starting lineup. The team finished 20-18 in the regular season under Vogel.
“How else will these young guys ever learn unless they’re thrown in the fire?” Miller said. “How else is Larry Bird and the rest of his staff going to be able to evaluate this young talent unless they play?”
Because of the relative youth and inexperience on the team, Miller believes Granger will have to play at a higher level for Indiana to make noise in the postseason. The forward averages 20.5 points and 5.4 rebounds.
“This team will go as far as Danny will take them because no one else on that team can do what Danny can do,” Miller said. “And that’s put the ball in the basket and put a lot of pressure on opposing defenses. Really, it falls on his shoulders. I hope he accepts that. If they are to be successful against the Bulls, Danny has to have an incredible series. He has to put the fear of God in the Bulls.”
Bird said the Pacers have to be aggressive against the Bulls.