If there’s one thing that Buffalo sports fans can recognize, it’s a small market team that works hard and grinds it out against the big dogs. This year’s version of the Indiana Pacers, (that’s basketball, for all the puck crazy fans out there) embodies the grit and determination that we remember from our favorite Bills and Sabres teams over the years. The Hoosier state has always been a basketball paradise and the passion of the fan base is very similar to the “Hockey Heaven” that the city of Buffalo once was, not too many years ago. Pacer fans long for a championship but have never tasted it, despite getting close. Much like our football team in Orchard Park, the Pacers hit their glory days in the 90’s, with Reggie Miller and Rick Smits leading the way. Their most famous playoff victory is also, an incredible second half comeback, and while it wasn’t a 32 point rally to win in OT, Reggie Miller scoring 8 points in 9 seconds to beat the Knicks two years after Frank Reich beat the Oilers is certainly on that same level (just ask Spike Lee). In the year 2000, just one year after the Sabres lost in the cup final, it was the Pacers who were knocked off in the NBA finals in 6 games, much to their fans dismay. And as for the Pacers of late, it was a few down years following the retirement of Reggie Miller but after pushing around the mighty Miami Heat last year in the conference semi-finals, only to get ousted in six games, it’s safe to say basketball in the Midwest is back. Interest levels for this team soared for many going into the playoffs this year, despite the media coverage being centered around the major market teams. The first two rounds were relatively uneventful, knocking off the Hawks and the Knicks, but after watching every minute of the first two games of their current series against the Heat, I think even the casual basketball fan of Western New York can appreciate the style this team plays.
Much like the Sabre teams of the mid 2000’s, Indiana does not have a bonafide superstar, but rather 6 or 7 niche players that fill their roles nicely and are backed by a solid defensive stopper and formidable bench play. For the Sabres back then, the constant was Ryan Miller in goal, where the defense knew that if a mistake was made, Miller’s skill and playmaking ability would bail them out. For the Pacers, its 7 foot 2 center Roy Hibbert. You may remember Hibbert as the awkward, lanky giant from Georgetown who got dominated by Greg Oden in the final four back in 2007, but the 2013 version has filled out nicely and become quite the force for Indiana inside the paint. Hibbert came into the league with a reputation of being “soft” but has quickly shed that both on the court as well as on the twitter machine. (see Battier, Shane).
One player that nobody has ever ventured to call anything remotely close to soft is the former All-Star David West. West earned his hard-nosed reputation playing with Chris Paul in New Orleans and was handsomely rewarded with a new contract in 2011 with the Pacers. Watching West for even a few minutes can make you shudder in fear, as it is obvious he’s a man who enjoys contact, and is not afraid to take it hard to the hole against even the toughest of defenders.
That brings us to the Pacers budding star, and soon to be most famous player Paul George. Of course a man with two first names has to be appreciated in Buffalo, (Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas) but George’s likability goes way beyond that. Coming from a non-traditional basketball powerhouse (Fresno State) the 10th pick in the 2010 NBA draft has had to work his way into stardom and whether it be because of a miraculous three pointer to tie game one, or a thunderous tomahawk jam over The Birdman in game two, George’s name has been circulating in that star category for weeks now. Many feel that it was George who was responsible for the final basket of game one, overplaying LeBron James and giving up an uncontested layup at the buzzer. The 23 year old not only acknowledged his mistake in the post-game press conference, but also corrected it two nights later, forcing a turnover in the closing moments to help Indiana tie the series at one.
Everyone knows the knocks on the NBA, especially around this area, the players don’t play defense, it’s all Isolation ball, etc. To those I say watch the next few games of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals. You’ll see a raucous crowd, solid team basketball, and a defense that does not quit. And while the Bills and Sabres may be a few years away from coming this close to a championship, I guarantee the 2013 Pacers will remind you of the glory days that once were, as well as provide hope for all small market teams of the glory that can be achieved.