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IndyStar.com – Remember when the Pacers played for the title?

June 16, 2010

By Mike Wells

June 15, 2010 – Ten years ago, the Indiana Pacers had a chance to become NBA champions.

Always groomsmen but never the groom in their NBA history, the Pacers finally reached the Finals after beating their nemesis — the New York Knicks — in the Eastern Conference finals.

“It was magical,” Jalen Rose said last week. “We went from losing to M.J. (Michael Jordan) and to the Knicks on L.J.’s (Larry Johnson’s) controversial four-point play2_bing.gif, to finally getting over the top and reaching the Finals.”

The Pacers fell in six games. They won two of the three games at Conseco Fieldhouse but had no answer for Finals MVP Shaquille O’Neal2_bing.gif, who averaged 38.0 points and 16.7 rebounds in the series.

“They were just the better team,” Rose said. “Shaq basically played like Wilt Chamberlain against us. When he wasn’t being an anchor down low, Kobe Bryant was being a closer.”

The Pacers credited their rise to coach Larry Bird, who told them when he took the job in 1997 they had three years to reach the Finals.

“The only thing is, I don’t think they realized they were good enough to get to the Finals,” Bird said last week, reflecting on the run. “I knew it, but I don’t think they did.”

Bird, now the Pacers president, wasn’t big on small talk. He kept things straight and to the point. He had his players’ trust because he had been through the playoff battles as a player, winning three titles in his Hall of Fame career with the Boston Celtics.

“Larry was the co-pilot,” Sam Perkins said. “We all respected him because he knew what it took to be successful.”

The Pacers adopted Bird’s whole-team approach. They surrounded All-Star Reggie Miller with outstanding role players.

There was the steady point guard play of Mark Jackson, Dale Davis and Rik Smits in the frontcourt and a solid bench led by Perkins and Austin Croshere.

Only eight players started a game that season, and the substitution patterns were set. Travis Best knew when he would go in for Jackson. The same went for Croshere and Perkins.

“Nobody was really fighting to get more playing time or getting mad if they weren’t playing,” Perkins said. “If we were out of sync, everybody would gather or pick that one guy up. We had the mind-set that it was up to us because nobody thought we would be there at all.”

It was Miller’s team, but Rose was the key. He led the team in scoring at 18.2 points to Miller’s 18.1.

“I remember telling (assistants) Dick Harter and Rick Carlisle that Jalen was our Most Valuable Player,” Bird said. “He was so good that year. He really changed our team.”