KRAVITZ: Surging Pacers are united as ever; the photos on the locker room walls don’t lie


There are lots of photos up on the walls of the Pacers’ St. Vincent practice facility across the street from Bankers Life. They’re not just action shots, though, not just photos of guys dunking or knocking down 3-pointers. There are also reaction shots, shots of the bench players celebrating – or, in Myles Turner’s case, ripping his pants – while rooting for teammates when they do special things.

There’s a very specific reason for the existence of these photos, and this is it: To show this Pacers team, as unified and uplifting as any Pacers team I can remember in my 18 years in this city, how everybody supports everybody else. When one man soars, the whole team soars. In fact, for me, the signature moment of the season came Feb. 23 against the Atlanta Hawks when Cory Joseph scored on a twisting drive, got fouled, and was almost immediately engulfed by four celebratory teammates who raced one another to help him up off the floor.

“That (Joseph) picture sort of defines our season," Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard told me recently. “…I was listening to (UConn women’s) coach Geno Auriemma; he did a video where he said, `If you’re not with us and don’t act right on the bench, I’m watching you and if you’re not acting right, I’m not going to play you,’ It was a bit of an epiphany for me."

This Pacers team hasn’t yet accomplished anything beyond overachieving through the first 64 games, but I’ll say this now: Of all the Pacers teams I’ve been around since 2000, this is my favorite group. They’re not the best group, not by a long shot, not even close to the teams that reached the Eastern Conference Finals, first against Detroit in 2004 and then twice against Miami, in 2013 and 2014. But they’re good, and they’re immensely likable, and it shocks me any time I see empty seats at Bankers Life.

There have been some special teams who’ve graced this city in my semi-limited time here. The 2002 national runner-up IU basketball team. The Butler teams who went to back-to-back NCAA final games (and there will never be a night more electric than the one when they played Duke at Lucas Oil Stadium). The 2012 Colts, who were expected to be bottom feeders, then emerged from the ashes of a complete rebuild, went 11-5 and reached the playoffs while their head coach battled cancer.

And then there’s this Pacers team, a team that was viewed as a complete afterthought and was expected to head for the NBA Draft Lottery. Here, for example, is what Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver wrote in his NBA preview when he picked the Pacers to finish 11th in the Eastern Conference:

“The one-sided Paul George blockbuster and Jeff Teague’s departure have left the Pacers with mediocre-at-best starters at all five positions. Myles Turner’s development will be the key storyline for a franchise that spent the last three years retooling over and over until nothing but desperation remained. Unfortunately, Indiana is stuck being merely bad and boring rather than an utter travesty, making it hard to bank on a top-three pick. Larry Bird picked the right time to retire."

Understand, I’m not giving Golliver any grief here. I thought they’d stink, too, although not quite badly enough to get a top draft choice. My take was that they would win between 35 and 38 games and be just good enough to barely miss the playoffs and still fail to get into position for that stud pick. Anybody with a functioning cerebellum had to look at the Pacers’ lineup – Bojan Bogdanovic? – and come away believing this was going to be one of the more eminently forgettable seasons in Pacers history.

Well, then.

With Monday night’s grinding 92-89 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Pacers are now 37-27 and just a half game out of the third playoff spot behind the Cleveland Cavaliers. Thirty-seven wins. And there are still 18 games remaining. Kevin Pritchard should win the Executive of the Year Award. Nate McMillan should get some run as a Coach of the Year candidate. Victor Oladipo is a shoo-in for Most Improved Player – or at least he should be.

Chemistry is impossible to define, but you know it when you see it. And I see it with this group. Consider what happened at the NBA trade deadline: Nothing happened. That’s the point. Several players approached Pritchard and implored him to keep the team fully intact, to give them the opportunity to take a run at the upper reaches of the Eastern Conference. Pritchard gave some thought to moving Al Jefferson’s contract, but decided against it when he weighed Jefferson’s value as a leader and a sage voice off the floor. Hard to imagine, but if you ask Pritchard, he’ll tell you Jefferson, a big-time scorer before he came to Indiana, has completely embraced his role and has become, in Pritchard’s words, one of the team’s most valuable pieces.

“(It’s) their communication with each other,’’ McMillan said. “They get on each other. A lot of the conversation during huddles at timeouts or at halftime, you know, we’ve been down big and their communication, listening to each other, they’ve been able to rally. That shows the closeness of this group. They’ve done that a number of times throughout the season.’’

Yes, the comebacks. There have been plenty of them. The Pacers have come back to win when trailing by 10 points or more seven times, have won five games when trailing by 19 points or more and three times when trailing by 21 or more. What that tells you is this team doesn’t turn to mush and doesn’t display bad body language when they’re down, as was the case one year ago. This latest four-game road trip revealed the Pacers in microcosm: They had two ugly losses against two of the worst teams in the league, Dallas and Atlanta, then had a meeting, talked through some issues, and rebounded with victories at Milwaukee and Washington.

Success on the road is another barometer: The Pacers are 15-16 on the road this season; one year ago, they didn’t win their sixth road game until Jan. 18.

They have their issues. They have their misunderstandings, their agendas, just as you would imagine when you’re dealing with young men who are making millions of dollars (generally speaking). In the end, though, they’re brothers, an immensely likable collection of players who’ve slowly but surely earned the attention and the love of this city.

Even on a night when Victor Oladipo had the wrong kind of double-double – 14 points and 10 turnovers – the Pacers found a way. Bojan Bogdanovic was sizzling, finishing with 29 points. And Thad Young continued his mastery over Giannis Antetokounmpo, limiting him to 18 points on 7-of-16 shooting.

Jump on board the bandwagon, and do it soon. You want to be part of this pretty picture.

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