The Indiana Pacers met the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2000 NBA Finals.
INDIANAPOLIS — The moment is as clear to Donnie Walsh today as it was 20 years ago. As he looked over his Indiana Pacers, slumped, weary, dejected and withered by a will that had taken them so far — though not quite far enough — the time had come.
A journey that began in 1987 with the drafting of Reggie Miller and Rik Smits in ’88 had four hours remaining as the wheels lifted on their flight from Los Angeles on June 19, 2000.
The Pacers had lost Game 6 to the Lakers 116-111 and with it, their only chance at an NBA championship in 44 years.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘These guys have tried for a long time to win a championship,’” says Walsh, president of basketball of basketball operations during the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance in 2000. “‘They gave everything they could. They practiced the right way. They were focused on winning a championship and they got beat. I’ve got to change the team now.’
“Still, that’s how I feel today. I had to do it.”
The effort was valiant. If they’d won Game 4 at home in overtime, which would’ve tied the series at 2, who knows how that could’ve altered history for the small-market little guy vs. the big-market behemoth featuring MVP Shaquille O’Neal.
In the previous two seasons, the Pacers had fallen short of reaching the NBA Finals, losing in the conference finals in 1997-98 and 1998-99 under coach Larry Bird.
“I didn’t think I had that big-picture vision at that time. I was very naive,” said Austin Croshere, then a 25-year-old key reserve who had completed his third season during the Finals run. “I just assumed everyone would be back that following year.”
Gone would be Bird, who was promoted to a front-office role with the franchise.
Dale Davis would be traded to the Portland Trailblazers for Jermaine O’Neal.
Mark Jackson departed in free agency for the Toronto Raptors.
Smits, who struggled with foot injuries, retired after 12 seasons.
Assistant coach Rick Carlisle, the offensive coordinator of the league’s best shooting team, exited for his first head coaching job with the Detroit Pistons.
“I’ve been in the Finals five times, three as a player,” says Carlisle, an assistant under Bird in Indiana who’d win the 2011 crown as the head coach of the Dallas Mavericks. “The universal fact about the NBA Finals is it’s virtually impossible to come out as the losing team and still feel like you had a great year.
“It’s not that you can never feel good about your season and what you accomplished, but the stakes are so high and the level of attention that the Finals gets is so great there’s a lot going on. You always wonder what could’ve been.”
The 2000 Pacers, who won 56 games, were special in their own way, though this wasn’t necessarily their best roster.
The core was the same with Miller, Smits, Jalen Rose, Jackson, Dale Davis, Croshere, Derrick McKey and Travis Best.
It wasn’t until Michael Jordan’s run with the Chicago Bulls ended and O’Neal vacated the Orlando Magic to head West, that the Pacers could get to the NBA Finals. They should’ve had more than one shot, their best one coming two years earlier, before they lost in seven games to the Bulls in the conference finals.
Jordan called those Pacers his toughest competition outside of the Detroit Pistons of the early ’90s en route to winning his sixth title.
“We had had better teams,” said McKey, who made four trips the conference finals with the Pacers from 1993-2001. “Shaq in his prime and Jordan in his prime stopped us from getting more opportunities. They just may have had that better superstars than we had at that time.”
Walsh felt compelled to shake things up after the Pacers lost to the New York Knicks in the 1999 conference finals, which came during a 50-game season because of the lockout. Patrick Ewing didn’t play after Game 2 because of a foot injury and the Knicks appeared doomed, but their small lineup of Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston and Larry Johnson helped the No. 8 seed upset No. 2.
The Pacers dealt longtime forward Antonio Davis to Toronto for the rights to rookie 6-11 forward Jonathan Bender, who would never pan out because of injuries. Walsh already had added Sam Perkins, a long-range shooting big man ahead of his time but at the end of his rope, in 1998.
The 2000 Finals appearance grew out of a perfect storm:
>> Dale Davis, who was drafted by the Pacers in 1991, became an All-Star for the first and only time in his career
>> Croshere had the best statistical season of his career, averaging 10.3 points, 6.4 rebounds
>> Rose had his best season, his sixth, up to that point, averaging 18.2 points and shooting 39.3% from 3
>> Miller put up 18.1 points per game in what would be his final All-Star season
They avenged their conference finals loss to the Knicks, beating them in six games in the 2000 rematch.
“Larry Bird did his best job coaching that season,” said Carlisle, who shared the bench with assistant coach Dick Harter. “A lot of people looked at the team and felt expectations were not going to be very high. The question was how do you make up for the loss of a physical and defensive rebounding presence like Antonio Davis. That fell into the lap of Croshere and Perkins. We were deep.”
Rose and Jackson were guards who could post up and feed shooters spotting up when they forced help rotations. The toughness from teams past remained but these Pacers had more offensive potency. Bender was a non-factor, but Croshere went from playing 9.2 minutes per game and appearing in less than 30 games in each of his first two seasons to 23.3 minutes in 81 appearances.
The Pacers were first in offensive rating (108.5), shooting 39.2% from 3.
Miller did what he could to lead the Pacers by example more than ever.
“A lot of people don’t remember this but that was the year Reggie Miller developed a one-on-one game to go with his catch-and-shoot game,” Carlisle said. “His ability to create as a scorer and playmaker got better.”
Croshere valued the chance to play behind experienced forwards. He believed that was more beneficial for him long-term than going to a losing team and being in the everyday rotation.
“I was fortunate to go to a veteran team and learn things by watching, practicing every day against Dale Davis, Antonio Davis,” said Croshere, the 12th pick for Indiana in 1997. “It was clear this was a culmination. It wasn’t a one-hit wonder. It was a process that started with Reggie Miller getting drafted, Rik Smits, Dale Davis, just piece after piece. I was very much aware I was a very small piece of the picture.”
When Croshere heard the 2000 Finals were being replayed on TV recently, he recorded it to show to his son. He figured it would be cool to share and reminisce.
It proved too difficult, but not because it opened old wounds for Croshere. The game wasn’t originally broadcast with high definition digital signals like today.
It was with those grainy, blurry analog signals. Facial recognition was impossible. So were jersey numbers.
“Within 30 seconds he said, ‘The quality on this is terrible. How long ago did you play?’” said Croshere, a first-round pick from Providence. “He got up and didn’t even want to watch.”
O’Neal stacked ridiculous video game stat lines in the first three games — 43 points and 19 rebounds; 40 points and 24 rebounds; 33 points and 13 rebounds — but the series with the Lakers was decided by missed opportunities early.
Kobe Bryant played only nine minutes in Game 2 because of an ankle sprain, but the Pacers still lost 111-104. They won Game 3 when Bryant sat out, but in Game 4 the Pacers led by double digits at home only to allow multiple chances that cost them with Bryant’s putback in a 120-118 overtime loss.
Solving O’Neal meant solving the Lakers even though they had Phil Jackson, his triple-post offense and Bryant beginning to emerge into a worldwide superstar.
Make no mistake, this was O’Neal’s team.
Smits had the size but lacked the agility to deal with him. Dale Davis had the IQ and defensive instincts but was too small.
O’Neal’s last three games in the series: 36 points and 21 rebounds; 35 and 11; and 41 and 12.
“He is an absolute genetic anomaly. That was at his peak or very close to it,” Croshere said. “It was hard even for someone like Rik. There was an idea to put someone like me on him to double him the second he catches the basketball. Even if it worked for a play here or a play there, this was a guy who was unstoppable. When someone that big and that powerful and that strong is so determined to get the ball in deep post position he’s either going to score or get fouled.”
The Hack-A-Shaq strategy sent O’Neal to the line 39 times in Game 2 alone. The regular-season MVP also earned the Finals MVP.
“He was unbelievable. He was so strong, even at his size very explosive underneath,” said Smits, who had help as Dale Davis and Perkins also defended O’Neal. “He did get the All-Star treatment. If you wanted you could take a charge on him every time but you get the foul call. That was the other aspect of how you guard a guy like that that gets the breaks as well being as dominant and strong as he was.”
In the 2-3-2 format, adopted to alleviate travel from coast-to-coast for the Finals, the road team was at a major disadvantage if it didn’t get the split in Games 1 and 2. That’s what happened to the Pacers, who went down 0-2 in Los Angeles and were tasked with having to beat the 67-win Lakers three times in a row to have a reasonable shot at an upset.
The title would become the first in a three-peat for the Lakers.
“I remember watching him down the court on a fast break, at the last second he basically put his right foot down and cut hard to his left,” Walsh said of O’Neal. “The power. The speed. I don’t know how he doesn’t break joints. He was that strong. Nobody could stop him.”
Smits’ best efforts had gone to waste. He was being dominated all series by O’Neal despite the Pacers going to him on post-ups early to start games. He shot 10-for-29 in the first three but went 11-for-14 in the overtime loss.
It was Smits’ last game when he was special at what was then Conseco Fieldhouse.
The Pacers dominated the Lakers in Game 5 at home, winning by 33 points, with Smits playing just 14 minutes because of foul trouble.
The No. 2 overall pick didn’t have to wait for Walsh to make the decision for him regarding his future. After almost retiring the previous year, Smits knew he’d be done with basketball.
What a way to open a new arena, now Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which remains one of the best venues in which to watch a basketball game.
The Pacers weren’t in a complete rebuild with all of the changes to come in 2000-01, but they’d take a major step back to a 41-41 team and a first-round playoff exit. In three years, however, they’d be back in the conference finals proving Walsh’s projections were spot on and rebuilding was the right call.
Sometimes, taking that step backward is required to spring forward.
Another NBA Finals appears to be a ways off, though the East has loosened with LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard going to the West. Getting out of the first round would be an accomplishment today for a team that hasn’t done so since 2014.
These Pacers retooled with eight new players and turned out to be better than anyone expected, without their best player for most of 2019-20 as Victor Oladipo recovered from right knee surgery, Jeremy Lamb out for the season (left knee/leg surgery), prized free agent acquisition Malcolm Brogdon repeatedly ailing (lower back, pinkie, hamstring, concussion, groin, hip) and a multitude of other rotation players missing extended time.
They’re looking for that other star to push them over the top and into the elite conversation with the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics.
Getting that player in free agency remains a massive hurdle. Teams such as the Pacers must knock it out the park with draft picks or trade for game-changers. Then they rely on crossing their fingers that they can retain them when deals expire.
That’s the moral of the story today as it was in 2000: Being good isn’t always enough.
Its about timing, too. Luck doesn’t hurt, either.
Jermaine O’Neal would come to Indiana after the championship run via trade with the Portland Trailblazers.
He turned out to be everything they’d hoped — all six of his All-Star appearances came in Indiana — leading the 61-win Pacers to the conference finals four years later before falling to Detroit.
The Malice at the Palace went down the next season, leading to mass suspensions and ruining what surely could’ve been a championship run.
They had to be dismantled. Carlisle, who’d been elevated to head coach, was fired. O’Neal was traded to Miami.
The Pacers drafted well, found a gem in Paul George in the lottery a few years later and were back in the conference finals consecutive years, 2013 and ’14. He’d forcehis way out in free agency in 2018.
So close, so many times. Until then, 2000 will have to do.
“Deserve isn’t the right word for it because every fan base deserves a championship,” O’Neal said. “When it comes down to it, everything has to be right. Things start to unravel and everything quickly comes back together. I would personally love to see that for Indiana, but it’s not the easiest thing to do. Everything has to be perfect.”
Akeem Glaspie contributed to this article.