Sports Column

Pacers eliminate Knicks, move on to ECF


It’s late May, and the Indiana Pacers are still playing basketball. New York Knicks fans can’t stand Indiana’s best player.

Nature is healing.

Back in November, I wrote a column stating the “Pacers have found their new Reggie.” In the article, I pointed out that Tyrese Haliburton would need to have big playoff moments before the comparison would take full effect. On Sunday, Haliburton looked the part with huge shot after huge shot, while staring down Knicks fans in the process. The star point guard and his Indiana Pacers walked into Madison Square Garden and dominated in a Game 7 from start to finish. In one of the toughest atmospheres in all of sports, the young and inexperienced Pacers grew up right before our eyes. Home teams had won all six games in the series until the deciding game. Every ESPN analyst picked the Knicks. The Pacers responded in historic fashion, shooting 67.1% from the floor for the game, which is the best field-goal percentage by a team in any playoff game in NBA history.

And now, they are headed to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2014.

“We expected to be here,” said Haliburton. “This ain’t a surprise for us. It doesn’t really matter what anybody thinks. I don’t think anybody picked the Pacers to win the series, but it happened.”

Yes, the Pacers caught some breaks in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Both the Milwaukee Bucks and New York Knicks had multiple key injuries to deal with. That doesn’t take anything away from what this team has accomplished. This franchise has had to deal with key injuries for years, and nobody felt sorry for them in those moments. It’s part of the game. And the Pacers have built a deep team that allows them to play more players with shared minutes, which has contributed to their overall health. I’ve never bought into the phrase “the best ability is availability,” but it’s definitely important. And to me, that Game 7 performance should quiet any critics of this Pacers team.

Pacers Head Coach Rick Carlisle said it best: “We had some good fortune to get to this moment. But our guys did the work to put us in a position to be here. I just want to compliment our guys on the level of class they have shown throughout the playoffs. I know our fans in Indiana are very proud.”

Haliburton had a few bad games in the series, but stepped up when it mattered the most. He finished the series averaging 21.3 points, 7 assists, while shooting 54%. He led both teams in assists and steals. Pascal Siakam also received his fair share of criticism early in the series. He responded with monster performances in Games 6 and 7 with the season on the line. This duo became the first duo in Conference Semifinals history to each average 20+ points, 50%+ FG, and 40%+ 3’s. And the Pacer stars weren’t alone. Aaron Nesmith, Andrew Nembhard, and Myles Turner shot a combined 23-for-29 in Game 7. The second unit shot a combined 12-for-18. It was a truly incredible offensive performance.

In early April, it looked like the Pacers were destined for the play-in Tournament, with no guarantees they would even make the full Playoffs. And now, they’re one of four teams still standing in the NBA.

They will match up with the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, with Game 1 on Tuesday night in Boston. The Celtics will be heavy favorites, as they have been all season long. The Pacers will embrace the underdog role once again. Indiana was one of only four teams to defeat Boston twice this season. It will be a major challenge for the blue and gold, but we know this much: This team will not back down. No matter what happens next, it has been one heck of a ride.

Tyler Smith covers the Indiana Pacers and Indiana Hoosiers for Indy Sports Legends and is the Youth Sports Pastor and New Hope Christian Church