No one's given the Indiana Pacers anything this year. A break. A chance.
Their coach enough props.
Having somehow shepherded the Pacers to a 44-38 mark and the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, one would have figured that Rick Carlisle's being named NBA Coach of the Year for the second time in his four-year career was a given.
So in that case, at least we were consistent.
There's been endless debate this week over whether the Suns' Steve Nash deserved the league's Most Valuable Player award over the Heat's Shaquille O'Neal (FYI: the answer is The Answer). Guess no one has anything left to decry an even greater injustice: Nash's coach, Mike D'Antoni taking home coach of the year honors over Carlisle.
Everyone knows of the trials and tribulations Carlisle's Pacers were made to endure this season, though apparently a lot of them forgot when it came time to fill out the ballots. Carlisle finished second, yet Seattle's Nate McMillan actually garnered more first-place votes (30-26).
"I've said that I don't know of any other coach who could have done what he did with this team," Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said.
Wait. Congratulations to D'Antoni. A 33-win turnaround is impressive. D'Antoni ignored the critics and the skeptics and coached an up-tempo, unorthodox style of basketball that's fun to watch and, more important, effective.
For that, D'Antoni should not have gotten anything more than a hardy handshake. He's being rewarded for decisions he made at the beginning of the year. After that, he sat back and watched. Carlisle deserved to take the hardware for surviving so much hardship, for navigating the obstacle course that was the Pacers' schedule. Very little about the Pacers' season was fun. When fate conspires against you the way it did against this preseason championship contender, you laugh to keep from crying.
No way Phoenix wins 50 games, let alone go a league-best 62-20, if Nash and Amare Stoudemire both miss half the season, the way Pacers point Jamaal Tinsley and power forward Jermaine O'Neal did due to injuries and O'Neal's 15-game suspension. And say the league had suspended Shawn Marion for the year nine games into the season, as Ron Artest was.
Can you say, lottery?
To have to utter these sentiments on Carlisle's behalf is utterly ridiculous. The work Carlisle did with a team left for dead on Nov. 20 should have spoken for itself. His players missed more than 400 games because of injury and suspensions. The Pacers played a game with six players after "The Brawl." Twenty players have worn Indiana's uniform this year. In a way, Carlisle knows what it's like to be a big-league manager -- try trotting out 31 lineups. You'll find more stability in Saturday morning pickup games.
"He's a real coach in the sense that he's not super conscious all the time of having the best talent on the floor," Walsh said. "And that's really paid off this year. This guy, whoever was available, he'd move them around and be able to win the game with them. He's extremely focused. I think the players understand that when he gets out on the court with them, whatever he's telling them, it makes sense. They understand that if you do these things, you will win."
The Pacers could not have overachieved more. Yet they continue to do so. They're still playing. That championship for which they were supposed to contend? Still very possible.
What? You still dare to doubt them?
First, the Pacers upset third-seeded Boston in the first round, winning Game 7 on the road. Then, Wednesday night, while D'Antoni was at America West Arena in Phoenix receiving the award of which Carlisle was robbed, Carlisle was at the Palace of Auburn Hills -- his former place of employment -- stealing home-court advantage from the defending champion Detroit Pistons and the coach for whom they kicked him to the curb, Larry Brown.
If you watched television Wednesday afternoon, you'd have thought the Pistons were about to cruise through this semifinal series past a Pacers team one analyst said was "out of gas," having been steamrolled in Game 1 of a second straight series. Detroit was up 15 after the first quarter of Game 2 and 10 at the break. But the Pacers refused to crumble.
Now the road to the conference finals goes through Indy.
The Pacers learned through the brawl experience how to, pardon the expression, take a punch. Only they got up swinging an uppercut. They looked overmatched Monday night, just as they did in the Celtics opener. But they don't overreact. They're a reflection of their unflappable coach with a brilliant mind for basketball.
Carlisle reminds me of someone. Yes. If Bill Belichick coached hoops, he probably would look and sound a lot like Rick Carlisle.
Carlisle, like Belichick, never dwells on the circumstances, just the solutions. He loves to say that if "cows were kittens there would be a milk shortage." Where he has the Pacers is nothing short of miraculous. He has a wonderful touch when it comes to matchups and personnel and he has his finger squarely on the pulse of his players. Whoever's playing, he'll have them playing hard.
"This was an extraordinary situation," Walsh said. "You needed a guy who could approach it the way he did. He never ever came to me and said, 'We need more players.' "
Carlisle had the perfect personality to pilot the Pacers past all the potential pitfalls of the year -- stoic. "I'm a believer that the emotions of the coach are important because they can work their way over to the players," Carlisle said. "The season is so long, so many things go on, if you ever get too high or too long, you can lose your focus on what's important. No matter what happens, as bad as things are, you're probably never that far from going good, and vice versa.
"We knew early on that everybody was going to have to stick together. We knew we didn't have a choice."
They still have a chance. No one gave it to them, and few are willing to let them have it now. But they're here, still defying the odds, because they've taken a cue from their coach and kept their eyes on the prize.
"You can't read him," said Pistons forward Darvin Ham, whom Carlisle once coached in a summer league. "He has one of the greatest poker faces in sports today. You can't tell whether they're up 20 or down 20. That's great, because no matter what level you play on, the team is a reflection of the coach. They never seem to get rattled."
His poker face is so convincing because Carlisle is as good a coach as there is at winning with the hand he's dealt.
So why'd he get played?
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.