Gritty Pacers exceed expectations

MIAMI -- The Indiana Pacers' season was defined by exceeding expectations.

It's easy to forget now, after the Pacers punched the Miami Heat in the mouth and dragged them to a seven-game series, but the Pacers started this season 3-6.

Three and six.

At that point, no one expected them to be here. The Pacers became the first team since the 2000-01 Milwaukee Bucks to start the season 3-6 or worse and reach the conference finals.

But you want to talk about unexpected? How about losing their star player, Danny Granger, to a left knee injury a day before the season started.

That was unexpected.

Then after all that, Roy Hibbert battled with wrist soreness for the first of couple months of the season. This was the guy the Pacers had just signed to a max contract in the offseason, and fresh into the first few months of his deal he looked like the offseason's biggest bust. Two of Indiana's highest-paid players, almost half of the team's entire payroll, battled injuries for the first half of the season and, on balance, barely made a positive contribution.

As mind-boggling as it sounds, a 7-foot-2 center making $13 million nearly averaged more fouls than made field goals through Dec. 31.

And that same guy ended up being perhaps the most important player in a series that featured LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, not to mention another future Hall of Famer in Ray Allen.

Hibbert averaged 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds on 55.7 percent shooting in the Eastern Conference finals. This after averaging just 9.5 points and 8.1 rebounds on 39.5 percent shooting up until the New Year. Yes, Hibbert spent a large chunk of the season shooting worse than 40 percent from the floor.

Does it get any more unexpected than that?

Oh, but it does. We haven't even talked about Paul George. You know, the guy who won the Most Improved Player award for the 2012-13 season.

When Granger went down, George emerged and never stopped emerging until he finally reached his ceiling in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. George had beaten Carmelo Anthony on the brightest stage in the NBA in New York City and held the second runner-up in the MVP vote to just 43.3 percent shooting for the series.

The reward? Guarding the actual MVP. George gave James everything he could handle in the next series and pushed him to the brink of elimination.

George never even scored more than 13 points against the Heat in the playoffs last season. This time around, George averaged 19.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists. While guarding the league's best player aiming to repeat as champion and going against Dwyane Wade on the other end.

Oh, by the way, George turned 23 in May.

You want to talk about expectations?

How about David West, who two years ago tore his ACL, and had never played in a conference finals. A month away from free agency, the 32-year-old West could have lost millions based on his play against a team that had won 45 of its previous 48 games. He was plagued with a fever for Games 6 and 7 of the series.

West could have let the 103-degree fever and the pressure of his next payday get the best of him. That would be expected. But instead he put up 11 points and 14 rebounds in a Game 6 win and then 14 points and six rebounds in Game 7, dominating each of the Heat's big men in the series and forcing Erik Spoelstra to "DNP-CD" perhaps his favorite player on the team, Shane Battier.

That was unexpected.

After Game 7, West sat at the podium and looked down at the stat sheet in front of him as Hibbert, who sat to his right, answered a question. What West saw on the box score made him shake his head in disappointment. What provoked such a response?

West explained that LeBron James made more free throws than the entire Pacers team. A bitter rant about the referees favoring the MVP in a closeout game on his home floor would surely be next.

Of course, something else happened: West instead pointed the blame toward himself and his team.

"They were just more aggressive," West said, continuing to shake his head in disappointment. "They just made more plays than we did. We gave them too many opportunities at the free throw line."

It was an easy opportunity to bash the third party. But of course, West exceeded expectation.

Just a few minutes earlier, Granger stood in his tan tailored suit on the sideline with his teammates, clapping and cheering on his team in the waning moments of the 99-76 defeat. After the game in the locker room, Granger was asked how distant his lowest point of the season felt on this night, after watching his team reach as far as they did.

Rather than dwell on what could be described as a lost season, Granger couldn't have been more thankful.

"My lowest point?" Granger asked with a skeptical smile. "I really don't think I had a lowest point. I got injured. It's sports [laughs]. You know what I mean? There's nothing I could do about it. I'm not going to beat myself up because my knee was hurting. I'm not the type to complain, 'Oh, I'm hurt.'"

Granger played five games this season.

"Look, I'm 30," Granger said. "I've been playing in the league since I was 21, 35 minutes a game, and I got injured. It happens. I don't take the approach like, 'Woe is me.' I've played nine years. I've made a lot of money, I'm very happy. That's the way I look at it."

Not what you expected, huh?

Pacers coach Frank Vogel coached his tail off in the series, making the Heat adjust to his team's style and mold their star-studded personnel to the one from Indianapolis. Against all odds, what the Pacers did this series against the Heat will probably stand out more than what the Heat did to the Pacers.

No one saw the Pacers here. No one saw them hanging as long as they did. "We accomplished a great deal," Vogel said. "No one in the world gave us a chance to get this far. We overcame an awful lot to grab the nation's attention. And now everybody in this country knows who the Indiana Pacers are now. And we represent all the right things: class, character, hard work, old-school basketball, playing the game the right way. We represented our franchise, our city and our state extremely, extremely well, and we have a lot to be proud of."

This is a team that has some questions on the horizon: What to do with West, who's eligible to become a free agent in a month? What to do with Granger, who might become a trade target as George has blossomed ahead of an imminent contract extension this summer?

But that's the funny thing about expectations. Once you've exceeded them, the bar is set even higher. One thing is for sure, the Pacers belong.

Indiana started 3-6 and finished the season by pushing Miami's No. 3 and No. 6 to the edge.

Who expected that?