Avg wins per Season: 54
1994: Lost in Eastern Finals to Knicks in 7
1995: Lost in Eastern Finals to Magic in 7
1996: Lost in first round to Hawks in 5
1997: No Playoffs
1998: Lost in Eastern Finals to Bulls in 7
1999: Lost in Eastern Finals to Knicks in 6
2000: Lost in NBA Finals to Lakers in 6
For this third installment of Best of the Rest, we turn our attention away from the high profile contenders from New York and Seattle to one of the best, and most underappreciated squads of the 1990s. During that decade, the Indiana Pacers made the playoffs every year other than injury filled 1996-1997, they made four Eastern Conference finals appearances, and climaxed in the 2000 playoffs by obtaining the ‘participant’ trophy in one of the last competitive NBA Finals.
The Pacers success began and ended with shooting guard Reggie Miller, the best role player of all time. Miller made a hall of fame career off of one offensive maneuver, catching and shooting off of screens. Playing to this ability, the Pacers filled their front line with tough players such as Antonio and Dale Davis, two players known for their screening abilities. As a result, the Pacers of the 1990’s featured some of the league’s toughest defense. Rounding out their front line during this era was 7”4 Dutch sensation Rik Smits. Smits never put up gaudy numbers, always staying slightly over 15 points and 6 rebounds. However, Smits was a major part of the Pacers’ success during this era, using his defense to subdue the conference’s giants, including Patrick Ewing and Shaq.
In 1993, the Pacers were coming off a string of four first round losses. The young club showed promise during the regular season, posting 47 wins. With a front line that included the Davis pair, Smits, and a young Derrick McKey, the Pacers had a club whose toughness could now rival the Knickerbockers. The Pacers showed just how tough they were in the first round when they swept O’Neil’s Magic. They then upset a very good, and very old, Atlanta Hawks team to meet the Knicks once more, this time in the Confrence finals. This would be the second of six classic playoff series between these two clubs, each team would end up taking 3 series raising the question of who deserved to be called second best in Jordan’s East. The Pacers fell to New York in 1994, but would upset the Knicks the following year in yet another seven game classic. This matched them up with a slightly more mature Orlando Magic squad. The Magic would come out on top this time, their reward being a four game massacre at the hands of the Houston Rockets.
For two years, things would not be the same for the Pacers. In 1995-1998, despite matching their ‘94-‘95 win total of 52, the Pacers failed to make it out of the first round. Though they gained notoriety as being the only team to beat the 72 win Chicago Bulls twice during the regular season, an injury to Reggie Miller opened the door for the now forgotten post-Wilkins, pre-Mutumbo Atlanta Hawks to pull off the upset. Disaster struck the following year. Boasting a tweaked lineup that included the now underrated point guard, Travis Best and underrated point forward, Jalen Rose, the Pacers could not transition effectively enough. They missed the playoffs with an abysmal 39 wins, aided no doubt by injuries that limited Smits to 52 games.
The following year, coached by Indiana legend Larry Bird, the Pacers returned to glory, winning 58 games. The major addition to their team was an aging, but still effective, Chris Mullin. This return to relevance earned them yet another match up with the Knicks. The Pacers gave the Knicks a beating that year, winning the series 4-1. The Pacers then faced Jordan’s Bulls for the first and only time during this stretch. The result was a magical seven game series, only the second time during the Bulls’ six title seasons that a team would push them the full seven games. The home team won every game, culminating with a five point Chicago victory in the deciding game. Still, that series, more than anything, showed the world that the Pacers were back, perhaps even better than before. The team, once a two dimensional squad whose fate rested on Miller’s shot and its front line, now featured weapons at every position. Though Smits was beginning to slip, Antonio and Dale Davis had now firmly established themselves as two of the league’s best big men. Jalen Rose brought some much needed finesse to the front court, a 6”8 who played on the perimeter. Finally, Mark Jackson and Travis Best shared minutes at point guard, becoming one of the leagues best starter/backup combinations at the position.
During the lockout shortened 1999 season, the Pacers posted the East’s second best record, and swept their way through the first two rounds. For the fifth time in seven years, the Pacers found themselves matched up with the Knicks. Despite having the home court, Indiana faltered in six games. Coming into the 1999-2000 season, the Pacers knew that they had to win now. Contributors such as Mullen, Jackson, and Smits were quickly losing their abilities to contribute, and the rest of the lineup had played together for years and never made it out of the Eastern Conference. The Pacers put together a fine 56 win season, earning home court throughout the Eastern playoffs. The Pacers would beat the Bucks and 76ers in the first two rounds, and once again face the New York Knicks. The Knicks stretched Indiana to six games, but the Pacers were a team on a mission, taking the series and making it to their first, and only, NBA Finals.
In the Finals they met the Lakers. Though they would fall in six, the Pacers made almost every game competitive (in game 1 they lost by 17 and afterwards, many predicted a sweep). This series would be the last time an Eastern Conference team even put up a fight in the Finals until the classic Spurs/Pistons matchup of 2005.
The following year, the Pacers acquired young center Jermaine O’Neil, who replaced the retiring Smits. The team would return to prominence three years later, but that version was very different than the squad that dominated the Eastern Conference for seven long years.
Highest High: Though the team made it farthest in the 2000 playoffs, their competition was no where near as tough as it was in 1998, when the played Jordan’s Bulls to a near draw in the Conference Finals. That series let them join the 1992 Knicks as the only teams to every give a champion Bulls squad a whiff of defeat.
Why didn’t they win? This is a tough one. Unlike other Eastern Conference powers from this era, they were not constantly victimized by Michael Jordan. In reality, they just peaked at the wrong time. Their best chances to win came in 1998, 1999, and 2000, and all three years featured very dominant squads (the Jordan Bulls, the red hot Knicks [and had they beaten the Knicks they would have been shellacked by the Spurs], and the emerging dynastic Lakers).