May 29, 2013, 1:31 AM EDT
The Miami Heat have been the most heavily scrutinized team in NBA history, and opponents aren’t immune from getting sucked into the publicity whirlwind. For better or worse, playing the Heat is different than any other game. Some teams, like the Bulls, thrive when facing the challenge. Others, like the Nets, crumble under the pressure.
The Pacers do neither.
Indiana just plays its game.
The Pacers don’t have the most high-end talent among the remaining teams. (That’s the Heat.) The Pacers don’t have the most depth, either. (That’s the Spurs.)
But after winning Tuesday night to even up the East finals at 2-2, Indiana has shown the most resolve in these playoffs.
The Pacers lost back-to-back games to the Hawks by 21 and 11 and won the next game. They lost to the Knicks by 26 and won the next game. They lost again to the Knicks by 10 and won the next game.
Now, after losing to the Heat by 18, Indiana has bounced back again – this time with a 99-92 victory over the Heat in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
No team has lost more games by double digits in these playoffs than the Pacers. In fact, Indiana has lost more double-digit games than the other three conference finalists combined.
But these Pacers keep fighting back.
George Hill was part-time starter and part-time sixth man for the San Antonio Spurs at age 23. For a player who spent four seasons playing for a team that sounds like a list of Hoosier State tourist locations – Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis – such a large role at such a young age had to be a dream come true. Then the Spurs traded him to Indiana, a team that went 37-45 the year before and still cut his minutes.
Lance Stephenson was once New York City’s schoolboy star du jour, earning the nickname Born Ready. Then, he faced legal trouble and eligibility questions, spent an OK season at Cincinnati, was drafted in the second round, struggled through his first two NBA seasons and appeared headed out of the league.
Paul George told anyone who would listen that he had sky-high potential; that he could be the next Tracy McGrady. An All-WAC second-team season didn’t exactly prove his upside, but George went pro anyway. He was so focused on the draft, he shared that Fresno State’s losing season actually help him – because he could prepare for the draft while other prospects were still playing in the NCAA Tournament. He went No. 10 – much, much, much higher than anyone would have imagined a year prior. Then, early in his rookie year, after all his hard work to achieve his draft dream, George was regularly receiving DNP-CDs.
David West was so highly regarded at Xavier that he made Sports Illustrated’s All-Decade team with players from more traditional powers Duke and Connecticut. But when it came to the draft, West faced typical questions for a power forward who spent four years in college (size, athleticism, upside) and slipped to 18th in the draft behind luminaries such as Troy Bell, Reece Gaines and Marcus Banks.
Roy Hibbert wasn’t exactly Patrick Ewing or Alonzo Mourning, but Hibbert changed himself from a player who couldn’t do a single push-up into someone who credibly belonged on a list of Georgetown’s great centers. Still, questions about his mobility pushed Hibbert’s draft stock below Joe Alexander, Jason Thompson and Anthony Randolph, down all the way to No. 17.
These players have been hit a lot harder than they were by the Heat in Game 3. The narrative suggested they should crumble at the sight of Miami showing its might, but their personal experiences have given them strength in these difficult situations.
Together, Hill, Stephenson, George, West and Hibbert have grown even stronger, worked even harder, gotten even better. Their resolve has increased. They’re not phased by losing, winning, playing the Heat or anything else.
The Heat could very well still win this series, but they won’t get to the Finals by intimidating Indiana. They’ll have to win on the merits of their play.This video is no longer available. Click here to watch more NBC Sports videos!