KRAVITZ: After a shocking regular season, the playoff-bound Pacers are playing with house money

The Indiana Pacers bench celebrates during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Golden State Warriors in Indianapolis, Thursday, April 5, 2018. The Pacers defeated the Warriors 126-106. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Bob Kravitz

They brought it every night, and how many NBA teams can truly lay claim to that virtue? Some nights, they weren't quite good enough, these surprising Pacers, or were too fatigued in the second game of a back-to-back (see: last week's game against Toronto), or maybe just had a lousy shooting night, but win or lose, they always brought effort.

From game 1 to game 82, the Pacers earned their paychecks, and again, in a league beset by tanking franchises and superstars sitting it out from time to time, how many teams have given their city more than this group has? They've won on the road. They've won the second games of back-to-backs. They've dominated in close games. They've come back from deficits, huge deficits, time and time again – the telltale sign of a team that is truly focused and unified.

Indiana, which doesn't know how to tank and financially can't afford to tank, will soon be heading to the postseason for the seventh time in eight seasons. Philly's got The Process. Indiana has The Playoffs. They say their work isn't done, and I wouldn't put it past them to beat or at least challenge either the Cleveland Cavaliers or Philadelphia 76ers, but outside the team's locker room, you know this to be true:

They're playing with house money.

Understand, they could have tanked, and honestly, when the season began, I was among those who hoped they would be just lousy enough to miss the playoffs and qualify for the NBA Lottery. Even when they began 19-19, a decent record considering the arrival of so many new faces, I figured water would find its level. The Pacers? Slowly but surely, they'd fall toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference and we'd spend our time contemplating their draft options.

And then they shocked us. And yes, they shocked themselves, even if most of them are too prideful to admit as much. But you talk to general manager Kevin Pritchard, he'll honestly tell you, he thought this was a team that was headed to a win total somewhere in the 30s. We all did. The national media believed what most of us believed locally: They were headed into the abyss and were poised for a complete rebuild.

Then Victor Oladipo blossomed into a mega-star. Bojan Bogdanovic established himself as a solid small forward who could score and, yes, defend. Darren Collison, who will finish the year with the league's best assist-to-turnover ratio, had a career year. Domas Sabonis showed why the Pacers were so desperate to move up and grab him in the 2016 Draft. Shoot, almost all of them had the best years of their career, with the puzzling exception of Myles Turner, who desperately needs to find his game before he gets exposed in the postseason.

Soon, the awards will come.

Oladipo has a Secretariat-type lead on the field for Most Improved Player.

Pritchard should get serious consideration for Executive of the Year.

Nate McMillan should get some run as Coach of the Year.

"It's been a group all season long, they've given us everything they have every single night,'' McMillan said before the Pacers' meaningless regular-season finale against the Charlotte Hornets. "They play the game the right way. They play the game together. It's been (very satisfying). These guys just come out and give you everything they have. There's not any egos. They work together, they seem to enjoy player together. All we've asked them to do, they've tried to do that…That effort has been there all season long.''

Remember, the Pacers began this season with 10 new players, and McMillan admitted, he didn't know exactly what he had. Nobody did. But sometimes this happens in sports, albeit rarely: A group of players with something to prove to themselves and the league come together, unify and overachieve in the most unimaginable way.

They put up numbers individually, Oladipo in particular, but as a team, they did things that seemed far-fetched when Pritchard was forced to re-boot his team after the Paul George news hit.

They finished seventh in points allowed…sixth in field goal percentage…eighth in 3-point shooting percentage…fourth in defending the 3-ball…second in steals…fifth in fewest turnovers…second in forcing turnovers and points off turnovers…fifth in fast-break points…sixth in fewest fouls committed. And we could go on. Big picture, they were a top 10 team in offensive and defensive efficiency.

They won on the road, going 21-20 after finishing 13-28 last season. They were money in close games, going 11-2 in games decided by three points or fewer. They came back from a 10-point deficit 12 times, won eight games after trailing by 15, five when trailing by 19 and three times when they were down 21 points or more.

"I'm proud of what we've created in the sense of our culture and how we approach the game,'' McMillan said. "…We've gotten off to some slow starts but we've seen them continue to fight when they fall behind. I like that we play the game hard and play the right way, respect the game. As long as I get that from my team, I'll be happy with whatever the results are…They come in and do what you say. Tell them they're not working hard enough, they give you more. Tell them they're not playing together, they work to play together. So yeah, they've been a joy to work with.''

Now comes the short wait to see who the Pacers will play in the first round. It seems all too obvious they'd be better off facing the Sixers rather then the Cavs, despite Philly's long win streak late in the season. The Sixers are a wildly promising young team but, like the Pacers, they have minimal playoff experience, especially among their top players. There's also the issue of Joel Embiid's injury and the questions about his first-round availability. Meanwhile, the Cavs, um, well…they have LeBron James, whose teams have knocked the Pacers out of the postseason four times and has never lost a first-round playoff series.

Either way, they have a chance, even against Cleveland, who, we should note, no longer has Kyrie Irving on its roster. Yeah, Cleveland would represent another bad hand, but consider how the Pacers responded to the bad hand they were dealt by Paul George and his agent. Somehow, they overcame.

Whatever happens, this has been a joyride of a regular season, one made all the more thrilling and enjoyable because it was so unlikely. They brought it each and every night. There's not a whole lot more you can ask.

"Let's go shock the world,'' Oladipo told the fans before Fan Appreciation Night.

At this point, I wouldn't put anything past them.

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