From cushioned seats in the lower bowl, the Pacers brain trust -- owner Herb Simon, president Donnie Walsh and general manager Kevin Pritchard -- watched solemnly as the worst-case scenario unfolded. So young, so talented was this Indiana team, they seemed oblivious to the magnitude of a Game 7, of just how valuable each possession was, of just how quickly things can unravel. A few hours, 21 turnovers and a 99-76 pasting by the Miami Heat later and Indiana trudged off the floor, with a loss and an education they won't soon forget.
The sting will linger for weeks, maybe longer, but when it subsides the Pacers will come to understand this: It was a successful season. The loss of Danny Granger, the team's top scorer, early in the season to a knee injury was reason enough to unravel. Instead, Indiana came together. Lance Stephenson stepped in, Roy Hibbert stepped up, and the Pacers evolved into an old school, rough and tumble bunch, a team that will pound you in the paint, pressure you on the perimeter and make you feel every possession. They outworked Atlanta, bullied New York and gave Miami all it could handle before bowing out. They will be better next season, will use the failure like Miami and Oklahoma City have done before them, and emerge tighter, stronger.
Seated on a dais, a bright gold Pacers t-shirt sticking to him, David West offered similar sentiments. "I'm looking forward to seeing what this team looks like in three months," West said. And Walsh and Co. must make sure that's true. West is a free agent this summer, and in Indiana, he has become indispensable. West is to the Pacers what LeBron James is to the Heat. There is no one on the Indiana roster that can replace his production, and even if there were his value in the locker room is immeasurable. He is the Pacers elder statesman, its leader, the man Indiana's wide-eyed collection of 20-somethings looks up to.
Indiana needs West, but make no mistake: West needs Indiana, too. West's eight years in New Orleans began with such promise, his pairing with Tyson Chandler and Chris Paul appearing to be the perfect combination. But that group never reached its potential, and West had to move on. He landed in Indiana, signing a two-year, $20 million contract in 2011 and quickly it seemed like he had been there forever.
West has seen how fragile success can be, has seen good things fall apart. He knows what he has in Indiana, and isn't anxious to leave it behind.
"These are my guys, I can't see myself going anywhere else," West said. "We're the second best team in the Eastern Conference, one of the top four teams in the league this year. This group is a solid group. It gives me as an individual the best chance to accomplish the goals I have left [and] that's competing at this stage every single year from here on out."
This will be an expensive offseason in Indiana, with Tyler Hansbrough a restricted free agent, with Paul George in line for a max-level extension, with Danny Granger's contract still consuming a chunk of the payroll. Indiana proved it could win without Granger, and with one year left on a contract that calls for him to make $14 million next season, he is movable. Teams looking for a short-term fix at forward now and cap flexibility later could come calling, and if an offer includes a high draft pick or some point guard help, the Pacers would be wise to listen.
West won't come cheap, not after a season where he averaged 17.1 points and 7.7 rebounds in 73 games. An Eastern Conference executive suggested West could draw a three-year, $36 million deal on the open market, a contract that he would finish at age 35. But West relies on brute strength, not athleticism, and his feathery 15-foot jump shot suggests he will age better than most.
All the progress the Pacers have made, all the steps they have taken, it's all tied to West. They can be a force next season, can challenge Miami again, but they must return whole. No one wanted to beat the Heat more than West, and no one will push Indiana harder to accomplish that goal.
"We [will] have the same goals we had last summer," West said. "Our only focus is going to be to beat Miami. That's what it was in the beginning of the year and I don't see that changing."