Off pace, again

And just like that, it’s over.

I’ve been mysteriously silent on the plights of the Indiana Pacers this season. And rightfully so. They had a horrible season.

Yes, making the playoffs and taking a 3rd seeded team to six games is horrible. It was horrible because it was so disappointing. Sure, they had injury and personnel problems.
But that’s no excuse. Not for me. This team could have done something special.

From the start of the season, I should have known the Pacers were doomed. The Sports Illustrated cover jinx struck again. Both Larry Bird and Ron Artest stood together on the front of this season’s NBA Preview issue. They were buddies. They were ready to put “The Season of the Fight” behind them, move forward, become contenders. They were selected as the #2 team in the East, behind only the Pistons. They were groomed to be great – a deep bench, the best defensive player in the game, and a perennial MVP candidate.

Instead, Ron Artest flipped. Again. He asked to be traded. And the Pacers obliged, but not before making him sit at home for the rest of his time as a Pacer. In fact, until the trade deadline, the Pacers played without their second best player. With nothing to substitute for the loss.

When Artest finally was traded, the Pacers were already in trouble. They were below .500, and they were slipping out of playoff contention. The arrival of Peja seemed like the answer, and he was very good for a while. But then he injured his knee. And then Jermaine O’Neal spent some time with injuries. Same with Jamaal Tinsley.

The Pacers ended up with a record of 42-40 – good enough to face the Nets in the playoffs. And the Nets beat them, even after the Pacers took a 2-1 lead in the series. This is the second straight year the Pacers went up 2-1 against a superior opponent (they did it last year against the Pistons) and both times they finished the season with three straight losses.

I hate to say it, but I’m feeling some severe disappointment from all of this. It’s just a game, yes, and I knew my team wouldn’t have made it much further than the second round. But the end of the season for my favorite team in my favorite sport is always a time of mourning. Of lost opportunities, and the curse of bad luck. Of knowing there is nothing left to look forward to on the sports landscape until basketball starts again next year.

Someday, I’ll see the Pacers get their act together. They’ll put together a season free of injury. Anthony Johnson will explode for the entire year, as he did against the Nets, and Jamaal Tinsley will never curse our team with his constant injuries. Jermaine will have another MVP-type season. Peja will regain his range, if he even re-signs. Some day, I’ll be watching the Pacers in the Finals, and this time they won’t be playing the dual headed behemoth of Kobe and Shaq.

Some day. I swear.

A quick note – the Phoenix Suns, who were down 3-1 and seemed dead after the dagger-that-was-Kobe’s-amazing-shot, are back. And they’re back at home. And the Lakers, who everyone tried to call the greatest team since the Jordan Bulls, will be exposed as a one-man team with some role-players that got real hot.

I’m excited for this. I’ve become a big fan of Kobe’s – he changed my entire view of him with his unselfish (at times) play and killer instinct. But I don’t like how the media has latched onto the Lakers, the idea of a L.A. Clippers/L.A. Lakers second round match up and the perceived fact that the Phoenix Suns are done. Gone. Take away Nash’s MVP, and give it to Kobe Bryant. I hate that.

But the fact that this will end up going to a seventh game, this weekend, on national television, makes it all worth it. If the Lakers beat the Suns – whose post presence is on the bench wearing a couple of suits – they’ll certainly be trounced in the next round. But if the Suns win, I think they can match up well against the Clippers, and then (hopefully) we’ll get a Mavericks/Phoenix Western Conference Finals.

Now, if only we could get a Cavs/Nets Eastern Conference Finals, the league would be revitalized by two great match ups and lots of run and gun fun.

Anyway, go Phoenix. With the Pacers out, I’ve got no one else to root for.

This was lovingly handwritten on May 5th, 2006