Work in Sports
Pacers' Locker Room
Loads of questions face Indiana in offseason
Posted: Tuesday June 20, 2000 09:29 AM
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
LOS ANGELES -- They had given the Los Angeles Lakers more, probably, than anyone expected. They were a shot or two away, a play here or there, from getting into one winner-take-all game for the NBA title.
The Indiana Pacers didn't make it, though. Their dream of the biggest comeback in the history of the NBA Finals fell at Staples Center on Monday night, quashed by a young Lakers team with a load of talent and an unlimited future.
And so the Pacers, dressing quietly in their locker room only a few doors down from the L.A. celebration, were left to wonder whether their aging team would get anywhere close to this next year.
The end of an era? Perhaps.
For sure, Monday's crushing loss certainly raised a hundred question marks for the proud Pacers.
"It's going to be tough to get over," said Rik Smits, the team's game but usually gimpy center who may or may not be back next season. "We were so close ..."
Smits has toyed with the idea of retirement for years. It's been thought that, win or lose, this would be his final season. But in the locker room after the game, Smits already was having other thoughts.
"You want to go more, just to experience it," Smits said of the possibility of going for another title. "But I'm not getting into that right now."
Monday's loss definitely marked the end of the three-year reign of coach Larry Bird. Though there is no word on who will take over the Pacers, whoever it is will have a large say on the makeup of the roster.
That roster could be vastly different. Along with Smits, point guard Mark Jackson, sharpshooter Reggie Miller, forward Jalen Rose and backup forward Austin Croshere all will be free agents.
The Pacers, so close this year, could be in danger of falling to the bottom of the Eastern Conference if they can't -- or are unwilling -- to sign some of those free agents.
"I'm sure it will all work out, one way or another," said Jackson, the 35-year-old on-court leader of the team. Jackson has lobbied openly to keep the Pacers intact. "It's going to be interesting."
The Pacers may have to pick and choose whom to keep, and there are a ton of mitigating circumstances. Miller, probably the team's biggest star, wants Jackson back, but the Pacers may want to go with backup point Travis Best, a younger player.
Many teams will court Rose, maybe the team's most exciting player. Croshere made a name for himself in the playoffs and could be a starter for a lot of teams.
"As for next year, we don't know what's -- we don't know anything," said Miller, who just wrapped up his 13th season in the NBA. "The coach ... it's all up in the air."
The Pacers had plenty to be proud of in the Finals. They scored 100 points on the Lakers in every game but the first. In Game 5, after a heartbreaking 120-118 overtime loss in Game 4, they came out and walloped the Lakers, 120-87, forcing a sixth game.
They led for much of the game Monday, too, taking a five-point lead into the fourth quarter.
But in the end, Finals MVP Shaquille O'Neal and the homecourt advantage were just too much. O'Neal averaged 38 points and 16.7 rebounds in the six games, and the Pacers were unable to win at Staples Center in any of the three Finals games they played there. Counting a regular-season loss to the Lakers and one to the Clippers, the Pacers are now 0-5 in L.A.'s new downtown arena.
Still, the Pacers walked out of their locker room Monday night after wrapping up the franchise's first trip to the Finals in their 24-year history unbowed and proud.
"It's too early for me to reflect right now," Rose said, standing before a dozen cameras in the tight quarters of the visitors' locker room at Staples. "But, obviously, it was a great run."
Only time will tell whether that run is over.