After 4 days we had come full circle on this years Sports trip, the last stop on a trek that began in Indiana and covered 3 different states was Indiana, The City of Indianapolis to be exact. After spending the afternoon watching the luckless Colts the Indianapolis NFL football team squander a lead and lose 20-17 to the Pittsburgh Steelers we took a quick drive to Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the arena where the Indiana Pacers play. The Pacers are a pretty nondescript squad this year with no real star power to speak of so in my opinion the only real thing they have going for them is the actual place that they play their games. First and most importantly the state of Indiana where basketball is like a religion and their fans are intensely loyal and secondly, Bankers Life Fieldhouse which is a pretty nice arena. It's one of those newer Pseudo-Retro kind of arenas where they try to create an atmosphere that makes you feel like you are in a fabled old building with a ton of history but the arena isn't really old enough to actually have that kind of authenticity. Built in 1999 the arena is only 18 years old which is very young for a sports venue. So its not really fabled or even old but that doesn't prevent it from being a pretty cool place to visit and watch a basketball game.
When you enter the arena the very first thing you notice is that there are large wooden display cases all over the place. most of them featuring memorabilia from Pacer greats going all the way back to the the team's ABA Glory days in the early 1970's. All designed to give the arena an old school feel. Even calling the arena a “Fieldhouse”is an attempt to trick you into thinking you are in an older smaller style of building.
The only thing people in indianapolis love as much or more than basketball is Indy Car racing. One of the world's most famous racetracks is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway aka The Brickyard which is represented both by the team's name "The Pacers" which refers to the car that sets the pace before races and in the Fieldhouse itself by the brick walls and references to racing throughout the concourses.
it's understandable that the Pacers have to lean on distracting or comforting their fans with references to Indy Car Racing or the teams past success because as I stated earlier their team hasn't had a lot of success in recent years.
Once you enter the actual court area all the fake old school and nerdy retro stuff ends and the view becomes decidedly more modern. It's at that point that you realize that actual basketball has to be played in the here and now.
As I stated earlier the Pacers main problem is that they are a young inexperienced team devoid of bonafide star players. Unfortunately for them they were facing one of the best teams in the NBA this season, the Houston Rockets and their superstar James Harden one of the most recognizable and biggest stars in the league. Harden is as well known for his appearance and style off the court as he is for his game on it. He was one of the first athletes to rock a full on jet black meticulously groomed extra thick, extra long beard and it has become his trademark. So even though there are now many players in many sports wearing similar beards Harden’s is the standard by which all of them are measured.
As expected the Rockets took control of the game right from the opening tip-off as Harden effortlessly weaved through over and around the Pacers dishing out assist after assist. It almost seemed as if he was toying with them passing almost every time he touched the ball. Simple passes, fancy passes, bounce passes, no look passes, lob passes, every kind of damn pass you could think of. As the Rockets ran the same play over and over with Harden in the middle of the floor running Pick & Roll after Pick Roll after Pick & Roll.
It was like a dance routine
PICK-ROLL-DRIBBLE- DRIBBLE- PASS- DUNK!
PICK-ROLL-DRIBBLE- DRIBBLE -PASS - 3 POINT SHOT
PICK-ROLL-DRIBBLE- DRIBBLE - PASS - LAYUP
It was an impressive display of unselfishness & basketball skill and that was what I didn't expect. Full disclosure, before this game I hadn't been much of a Harden fan. After seeing him kind of fold in big playoff games and hearing analysts talk about his poor defense and seeing him begin seasons obviously out of shape I viewed him as the typical spoiled super rich but super talented athlete who may never reach his full potential. He may well turn out to be just that in the long run but on this night I realized that he was also something else.
I was expecting him to dribble a lot and hold the ball looking for his own shot but after seeing him in person I realized he is probably the best offensive player I have ever seen. Not the greatest player or the winningest player or the most dominant player but the BEST at creating baskets for his teammates and himself within the flow of the game. He's a 6 foot 6 inch crafty magician that uses herky jerky movements and smooth effortless dribbling to glide by defenders. He sees the entire court, has a feel for what his teammates are going to do at any moment, is a skilled and willing passer and seemingly can get to the foul line or basket at will.
He has a midrange game,
He can shoot the ball from deep
And if you crowd him to try to take his outside game away he can drive down the lane and finish above the rim as well.
But in my opinion the thing that makes him unique is that he does everything so effortlessly, his game vibrates at a different frequency than every other player on the court he's different than every basketball superstar I've ever seen because he never seems in a rush but he's not quite going slow he's sort of in between EVERYTHING and on this night it seemed that he could do whatever he wanted on the court to whomever the Pacers sent to guard him. He even gave an honest effort on the defensive end of the floor.
The Rockets under Head Coach Mike D'antoni have been one of the best offensive teams in the league over the last few years. They employ a system analysts have nicknamed " Pace & Space where they strive to take more 3 point shots than 2 point shots meaning they purposely take more shots further away from the basket than closer ones because the longer shots are worth more points. During the offseason they made a big splashy trade and added Superstar point guard Chris Paul. which should take some of the playmaking pressure off of Harden in the playoffs and provide leadership for them in tough games during the season but what I think will be the difference in their playoff run this year is their improved team defense. which had been a weakness in the past.
As expected the Rockets ended up blowing the Pacers out 118-95 but to my surprise the Pacers did have a couple of bright spots in the game. During the offseason they traded away their best player to the Oklahoma City Thunder for 2 younger players, Victor Oladipo, a high flying guard who played his college ball at Indiana University and Domantas Sabonis the son of Lithuanian international basketball superstar Arvydas Sabonis. They both played well during the game providing a few exciting moments for the Pacer fans.
Oladipo & Sabonis were the only real reasons to pay any attention to the Pacers at all unless you count Brooklynite Lance Stephenson, who is worth paying attention to for a lot of reasons that don't always have something to do with actual basketball.
Harden finished the game with 26 points, 15 Assists and 5 Rebounds but I felt he could have scored much more if he wanted to. In the 3 following games he had 38 points 11 assists & 6 rebounds against the Raptors, 48 points against the Suns and 29 points & 7 assists vs the Grizzlies. Harden currently leads the League in total points scored and total assists which has only been done for a full season once in NBA history by the man pictured below:
Indiana has their love of basketball, a team named after a Pace car & a weird little mascot named Boomer but not much of a team right now.
Pacer mascot Boomer in his "INDY" car
If you believe the Pacer's slogan "WE GROW BASKETBALL HERE" you're probably crazy, from Indiana or both. but if you are a team that plans on winning the NBA championship this year you better.....