Shortly after the Indiana Pacers had swept the Philadelphia 76ers to advance to the NBA Eastern Conference finals, Pacers forward Chris Mullin chuckled at the irony.
Here he was talking about how poise and experience factored into Indiana's four hard-fought victories over the 76ers and how the Pacers' unsupervised practices during the season-shortening lockout had benefited the team's playoff run, which also includes a 3-0 sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks.
"During the regular season everyone said [those practices] didn't help," Mullin said. "Now you can say they did."
The Pacers, who open a best-of-seven series against the New York Knicks today, are where they expected to be all along. However, this has been a season of mild trepidation for one of the league's most seasoned teams. They earned the conference's No. 2 seed with a 33-17 regular season record, but they lost six games by one point, including three in a row. Veteran teams are supposed to win those games, or so the thinking goes. Minor dissension added to the less-than-perfect situation.
Point guard Mark Jackson was unhappy about frequently being replaced in the fourth quarter and swingman Jalen Rose would have preferred to be in the starting lineup. Weren't those players-only workouts during the lockout supposed to prevent this type of stuff? Weren't they supposed to give the Pacers the edge over teams with unsettled rosters and teams with undisciplined players?
Maybe not then, but they have now, say the players.
"The main thing is guys were disciplined enough to stay in shape during that time," forward Dale Davis said. "Now you can see how it helps when you have guys working out together. You learn more about each other. Everybody, together, gets that certain focus."
Problems have been settled. Rose accepted his valuable sixth-man role and Jackson has become a major factor late in games. Both are main reasons for the Pacers' postseason surge. So, too, are the team's depth and guard Reggie Miller's leadership. Said Pacers Coach Larry Bird: "I have a veteran group . . . who have the mind-set of winning a championship. They are a really focused bunch."
That goal was set last May 31, when the Chicago Bulls defeated the Pacers 88-83 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals.
It was the third time in five years Indiana's season had ended on the brink of the NBA Finals. It was the third time the Pacers' hopes had been dashed in Game 7 of the conference finals. Each time, the deciding loss came on the road. Against the Knicks, Indiana has home-court advantage.
"It was a real, real empty feeling," Mullin said of the season-ending loss to the Bulls. " . . . We felt we left something out there. That carried on during the offseason and during the lockout."
Chicago went on to win another championship, but after Michael Jordan retired the Bulls were dismantled. Some Indiana players said they wanted another shot at Chicago, but none said they were upset that the league bully was no more. The door to a title had opened.
"This is our best chance," center Rik Smits said after the Pacers eliminated the 76ers.
But the absence of Jordan and the Bulls doesn't guarantee anything. In 1994, Jordan was playing baseball. Indiana made it to the conference finals for the first time only to lose to the Knicks in seven games. Just paying dues, some players said after that series. The following season, with Chicago again out of the title picture, Orlando defeated the Pacers, 4-3, in the conference finals. Upon Jordan's return to the league, the Pacers regressed, losing in the first round to the Atlanta Hawks in 1996 and missing the playoffs in 1997.
After last year's resurrection, however, is time running out on this team? The average age of the Pacers' starting lineup is nearly 33, and the rest of the league isn't waiting. The Portland Trail Blazers, a Western Conference finalist, and the 76ers began ushering in a new era by posting thrilling playoff victories over some of the league's more established teams.
"We're an older team," Smits, 32, said. "The Sixers are going to be there soon. Five or six years ago, we were swept by Boston and we came back and learned from that."
That knowledge has them, again, a step from the NBA Finals. From building on experiences from previous years to overcoming minor glitches this season, Indiana's players feel they have done the things necessary to finally take the next step.
"We've been in this situation so many times now," Davis said. "We have home court throughout the East and we're in a good position right now. We've been there and we know what it takes. We're back again. Hopefully, this time, it will be a different story."