Pacers best placed to challenge Heat


Donnie Walsh wasn’t impressed. The former and longtime Indiana Pacers general manager had returned to his Indianapolis home for the 2011-12 NBA season.

He still was on the payroll of the New York Knicks, but they were going in that famous other direction — wherever that is — as Walsh’s coach, Mike D’Antoni, left and the Knicks told Walsh he’d be a “consultant” for his final season. But to stay home and they’d consult if needed. So Donnie began paying attention to his old team, the Pacers.

“I was laying around watching them,” Walsh recalled, “and I was thinking that they’re not as good as they think they are. And then I kept watching them and by the end of the year they were playing so good as a team I began to think they could be a really good team if they could add to what they have. I liked what I was seeing.”

And so have the fans around Indiana as the Pacers after the Ron Artest-inspired brawl are back in contention in the NBA, and as the season heads into the home stretch perhaps the main team in the Eastern Conference that can put pressure on the Miami Heat.

I don’t believe they can, but the Pacers with their Sunday win over the Bulls are 3-0 over the reigning Central Division champions and a combined 4-1 against Miami and New York.

And that’s without longtime leading scorer Danny Granger, who only returned after the All-Star break from season-long knee problems. They flared up again against the Bulls, so it remains uncertain how much Granger can help. Though the way the Pacers (38-22 overall) have played this season in taking over second behind Miami, he could be that added piece that could make a difference.

“These guys have played so well together without Danny it’s amazed me,” said Walsh.

That’s mostly thanks to the emergence of Paul George as an All Star. The athletic George is a potential league star, and one reason the Pacers believe — even if I don’t, and that doesn’t seem to bother them — that they can defeat Miami when it matters.

The way the Heat and LeBron James have played this season, and especially of late, it seems unlikely anyone can beat them as they draw comparisons to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls of the 1990s who kept Hall of Famers like Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley from championships.

When there are great players or teams in the way, like the Celtics of the 1960s or Lakers of the 1980s, it’s tough to break through. Miami is looking like that kind of team now. But the Pacers aren’t fazed.

There are two general theories about defeating Miami. One is to match down to them and spread the court to shoot 3s, thus spreading out their defense and opening lanes to the basket as they are small and don’t protect the basket. I prefer the other, which was the formula the Bulls felt they had to defeat Miami. It’s the Pacers’ strength as well.

Miami plays small, so you pound them on the boards, slow them down to curtail their fast breaks and dunks and have an elite small forward to defend James. No one stops James. You just make him work more and take more shots for his points.

The Pacers feel they have that player in George, who has defended Derrick Rose competently as well as James. Granger isn’t a particularly good defender, so that plan works a bit better with George.

Then Indiana, ranked No. 1 in the NBA in field goal defense and rebounding, has the size and basket protection with Roy Hibbert to put the Heat on the outside, which is not the strength of James and Dwyane Wade. Though James is a much better shooter.

Without Granger, though, the Pacers have to start athletic-but-erratic Lance Stephenson, and their bench is fairly weak behind George Hill at point guard and Hibbert.

Which is why unless Granger makes a dramatic and unexpected return to his high scoring ways of recent years it doesn’t appear the Pacers have the depth, even if they have the confidence with rugged David West, who will bully Chris Bosh to overcome the Heat.

Which, nevertheless, is a long way from the community shame the team brought with the Detroit brawl in November 2004 and then a variety of embarrassing off-court incidents.

Larry Bird, who coached the Pacers to the Finals in 2000 and took over when Walsh went to New York, did a terrific job changing the culture of the team and finding a star like George in the draft and adding solid veterans like West to make the Pacers tough and resilient.

But Bird wanted to spend more time with family and left, leaving the door open for Walsh’s return. And Walsh is liking what’s he’s seeing, although he knows he’s not quite there yet.

“Paul George is turning into a legitimate star,” Walsh said. “Larry (Bird) did a great job building this. Hibbert can be up and down, but he protects the rim and shoots a high percentage. The coach (Frank Vogel, one of the league’s youngest) has done an unbelievable job.

“Larry started like I did (drafting Reggie Miller) and I got booed off the stage at the draft (the fans wanted local favorite Steve Alford),” recalled Walsh. “You have to go through some trials in Indiana, but people are starting to appreciate what Larry did . . .”

Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”