When the Indiana Pacers open the playoffs Saturday night against the Atlanta Hawks (7:00 p.m. ESPN), Ian Mahinmi will be the only player on the bench who was sitting there last year in the postseason. The starting five is intact from the team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013. But Mahinmi is the only survivor from the rest of the roster.
Mahinmi saw limited action in the playoffs last year, but could play a bigger role this year backing up center Roy Hibbert, who has struggled in recent weeks. The Pacers also announced that Andrew Bynum (sore knees) will not be available in the first round playoff series, leaving the reserve big man minutes for Mahinmi.
"I prepare myself the same way whether I play or not," said Mahinmi in his French accent. "My focus was always on the right thing. The few games Andrew played, he played well. But I was ready to step up too. My approach was the same."
Mahinmi and Bynum are the only players on the Pacers roster to win NBA titles. Mahinmi won his in Dallas in 2011. With the top playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Mahinmi believes the Pacers can win it all.
"The last few weeks have been a little better as far as our focus and attention to details," said Mahinmi. "I've been on teams that make deep runs in the playoffs. I won it all with the Mavs. The character we have in this locker room reminds me a lot of what we had in Dallas. I have a lot of confidence in this team."
Luis Scola is the Pacers top scorer off the bench, averaging about seven points and five rebounds a game. Missing the playoffs last year playing for the Phoenix Suns reinforced for Scola that the postseason is not a given.
"As you get older, you know that you are closer to the end than you are to the beginning," said Scola, who turns 34 April 30, "so it's going to be over and this is the fun part. You appreciate things more just because you know how important it is. You know how difficult it is to get here. You just enjoy it more."
Scola is the only Pacer to play in all 82 games this season. But Pacers head coach Frank Vogel believes Scola will be even more important now.
"You can't look at what Luis does night in and night out," said Vogel. "What we've said about Luis all along is that he has been in so many big games in his life, internationally and the NBA, that we've always felt like the playoffs are going to be the time when we get the most out of him probably."
"The intensity goes up," said Scola. "You've got to play right away. You've got to win. If not, you go home. That changes a lot of things. The other thing that changes is you play the same team a lot of times."
The Pacers bench became less effective as the playoffs wore on last season. The bench provided just 11 points a game in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat. The Pacers have more offensive options on their bench this season, with Scola, Evan Turner and C.J. Watson all scoring around 7 points a game.
"We just have to bring consistency," said Watson. "We have to try to come out there and create some energy some way, somehow and play good, solid defense and bring solid offense each game."
On a beautiful spring Friday, Watson thoughts turned to playing until the weather gets hot.
"It's fun," said Watson. "It's a great time of the year, great weather outside. It's the fun part of basketball. I think we're all geeked up about it."
Game 1 Sat., April 19 Atlanta at Pacers 7:00 p.m. ESPN
Game 2 Tues., April 22 Atlanta at Pacers 7:00 p.m. TNT
Game 3 Thurs., April 24 Pacers at Atlanta 7:00 p.m. FOX Sports Indiana/NBA TV
Game 4 Sat., April 26 Pacers at Atlanta 2:00 p.m. TNT
Game 5* Mon., April 28 Atlanta at Pacers 8:00 p.m. FOX Sports Indiana/NBA TV
Game 6* Thurs., May 1 Pacers at Atlanta TBD TBD
Game 7* Sat., May 3 Atlanta at Pacers TBD TNT