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The Pacers Are Back, Or At Least Getting There

9:53 AM EST on December 5, 2023

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 4: Tyrese Haliburton #0 of the Indiana Pacers celebrates during the game against the Boston Celtics during the quarterfinals of the In-Season Tournament on December 4, 2023 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2023 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

There is a moment when long-struggling teams finally stop struggling, and then there is a moment sometime after that moment when said no-longer-struggling teams capture the fancies of their townsfolk. We may finally be reaching that moment for the most historically resistible team in the NBA, the Indiana Pacers.

May be, we repeat, for there is no team whose charms have been easier to resist in good times and bad than the Pacers.

Indiana's 122-112 victory over Boston Monday night in the first-ever in-season tournament was noteworthy for three things. One, Tyrese Haliburton, upon whom we can confer only the highest forms of praise, had his first triple-double (26/10/13/zero turnovers) and was again the biggest reason the Pacers thrived. Two, it was their 15th game out of 19 in which they’ve scored more than 120 points, and their season scoring average dropped. They remain the team with the highest scoring average in league history (and the fourth-highest opponents' scoring average ever, just to keep things interesting).

And three, they nearly sold out Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Their aha moment may finally be upon them.

The announced crowd of 16,693 still left 1,231 potential humans unaccounted for, and it assumes that the ones they did count were actually in the building. Attendance figures are notoriously unreliable that way as we are long past the days when teams used to announce both tickets sold and people in the building; teams are far more concerned with money churn and in any event have any number of reasons to fudge their counts, most having to do with "we don't want you to know how hard it is to herd people into this dump."

And let us also note, in case you dared forget, that every empty seat in every entertainment venue is entirely, completely, and utterly the fault of management. Even the absent customer is always right. Thus, those 1,231 chairs are on the head of owner Herb Simon, as has every chair in every version of Gainbridge, which was born as Conseco and then the oxymoronic Bankers Life. The Pacers get the fanbase they deserve, and they are not alone there.

But this version of the Pacers is arguably the most fun version since Reggie Miller was shrugging his shoulders at Spike Lee. The Pacers teams that reached successive Conference Finals with Paul George and Lance Stephenson in the early teens did so with a stifling defense, and the last time they reached the Finals, 2000, was the last time they filled their building every night. It was also the first year in the Fieldhouse, and winning plus that new building smell was quite the intoxicant.

Since then, though, the Pacers have flirted only half-heartedly with relevance, and almost never by embracing the notion that points are good. So this team is playing against type to an excessive degree, and even though the Pacers have tried to play more entertaining basketball since the return and repurposing of head coach Rick Carlisle, these particular Pacers have reached back to their gloriest of glory days: when they were an ABA power half a century ago, when points were regarded as not just good but essential.

Which is why last night, in the team's most important game since 2020, was also a test to see if Indianapolis believed in the Pacers too, and they came within a section or so of full buy-in.

Not that one sellout changes a town's mood, but several in a row is the sign that word-of-mouth toward a long-toxic operation has changed for the good. Sacramento didn't fully re-embrace the Kings until late January. Minneapolis didn't change its attitude toward the Timberwolves until mid-February. Oklahoma City is still trying to decide where it sits with the revivified Thunder, as having sold out no games since COVID they sold out for Wemby, the Bulls (why?), and Philadelphia, but took a pass on LeBron James. Fan counts are like fans—fickle.

As to the Pacers, they are on the verge of taking back a piece of the town from the Colts and St. Elmo's cocktail sauce. Tyrese Haliburton is a healthy part of that reason (if you disagree with the notion that he is the new lord of the league, we condemn you), but Carlisle's willingness to change his views on hellsprint offense is also useful here. They are in their way the vanguard of the new new NBA, as the last new NBA as defined by Golden State is waning, and the ideal June for us all feels like Indiana–Oklahoma City, with every game ending 141-137, Adam Silver trying not to be strangled by ESPN and TNT executives simultaneously, and tickets being available for Game 6 while the people in those cities still try to decide how much love they can afford.

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