Bird’s Pacers ready for the Bulls


Apr 15

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Larry Bird has fixed things before, primarily basketball programs, like Indiana State, which he took from no one knowing where it was to the NCAA final game, like the Boston Celtics, who went from 29-53 to 61-21 in Bird’s rookie season, and the Indiana Pacers, who went from 39-43 to 58-24 in Bird’s first season as head coach.

But this was something different as Bird moved to president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers, who’d just endured the worst occurrence in NBA history with Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson going into the stands to beat up fans and a talented but troubled mix of players like Jamaal Tinsley, Shawne Williams and Jermaine O’Neal, who had to be moved out to create a new atmosphere.

And, by the way, make sure you win, also.

“It’s been tough and it’s still tough,” said Bird in a telephone interview from Indianapolis. “I’ve been very fortunate to be on great teams and to coach great teams. So now you have to go rebuild and do it now. You have to be patient, pick up some pieces along the way and hope they fit in.”

The Pacers are hardly a finished product. But they officially made the first step as they come to Chicago Saturday as the biggest playoff underdogs this season to open the 2011 NBA playoffs against the Bulls.

“Truthfully, I have no clue about what is going to happen,” said Bird. “They have no clue at all of what the playoffs are about. But it’s going to be a great experience for the young guys and I’m excited to see how (the players) handle it. I remember when Philly beat us in the Eastern finals (in Bird’s 1980 rookie season after the Celtics swept Houston, then in the East, in the conference semis). It was an eye opener. The way we got beat I said to myself I had to get better.”

No one expects the Pacers to beat the Bulls in the first round. Only three eighth seeds have won a series against No. 1: Denver over Seattle in 1994, the Knicks over Miami in 1999 and the Warriors over the Mavs in 2007. None, like the 37-45 Pacers, had a losing record. No Central Division champion ever has lost a first round series. The Bulls were 3-1 against the Pacers this season, and it’s been a rocky Pacers season with coach Jim O’Brien fired and replaced by assistant Frank Vogel.

But the Pacers are 20-18 since Vogel took over and won 10 of their last 17. They aren’t quite the same team the Bulls pulled away from in the first three wins. Vogel is 1-0 against the Bulls with that March overtime win when Derrick Rose scored a career high 42 points.

They are a physical team, ranking among the league leaders in rebounding, blocks and defensive field goal percentage. They shoot free throws well, have a quick point guard and big center and are among the highest scoring teams. The Bulls outlasted them in their three wins, basically only pulling away in the fourth quarter of all three before losing the fourth meeting.

Vogel has altered the rotation to play the young players Bird has been putting in place and former coach O’Brien resisted playing. They play less of O’Brien’s motion game that limited Hibbert and more traditional pick and roll and NBA power sets. They’ve been more spirited and less selfish. And their top player, Danny Granger, has been bold in saying earlier this week the Pacers were better off playing a team like the Bulls with one star in Rose rather than a team like Boston with several.

Bird has no problem with that stuff as he was happily one of the classic trash talkers of his era as a player. Heck, the guy once got the gentle Julius Erving to punch him during a game when Bird was dominating Erving, having 42 points to Erving’s five and chiding, “42-5 Doc, 42-5.”

So Granger’s comments are kids’ stuff to Bird. But Bird also knows he has kids, and with kids you never know what they will do and how they will react.

“Our guys are so young,” says Bird, though hardly as an excuse but more with a sort of fatherly pride.“ (Darren) Collison, (rookie) Paul George, (Tyler) Hansbrough all are starting. It’s really like a first year for Hansbrough (out most of last season as a rookie). Roy’s (Hibbert) in just his third year. But I thought we had a better team (than projected). I thought we could get into the playoffs.”

It’s perhaps almost as much of a surprise as the Bulls with the NBA’s best record, especially with the likes of T.J. Ford, James Posey and Solomon Jones playing major minutes when the teams first met and Hansbrough and George none.

But if inexperienced, they bring enthusiasm and effort, and Hansbrough hurt the Bulls badly in that March Pacers win popping outside to shoot jumpers and outhustling the Bulls inside. He’s a relentless worker whom the Bulls were desperately trying for in the 2009 draft.

Actually, Bird’s philosophy of rebuilding hasn’t been all that different from the Bulls, though so far without the lottery luck the Bulls had and the big market potential draw.

“We’re probably never going to get the superstar to come here,” admitted Bird. “So we wanted to get a core group of guys and add, trade a piece, get a veteran. We know we have holes to fill. It depends on the young guys getting better. We’re giving them the opportunity to play. This year has been great for them. I do feel we have some talent. They’ve got to get better and we have to add pieces. We’re not that far away from having a nice team.”

Although Bird believes in work ethic and responsibility, he had a bigger job to do that most after a series of embarrassing off the court incidents of violence in addition to the Artest horror. Indianapolis is a conservative community, and fans became embarrassed about the players. That’s a worst case for a franchise, so finances fell as well. So as you hear around many teams, a “culture change” was required.

“Look at our drafts,” noted Bird. “We went for older guys, Hibbert, Hansbrough, four year guys. We wanted to bring in guys who fit the community, who worked hard, guys committed to the game, who love to play and practice, guys willing to sacrifice for one another. We know we can’t get LeBron and Bosh and those guys (in small market Indianapolis), but you get guys willing to put in the time and if you get enough of them you can win.”

The Pacers are doing that with depth as well as Bird said one of the keys to his best teams in Boston was bench depth.

“Even,” he said with a laugh, “if K.C. (Jones) didn’t want to play them. In this league you can win games with your bench.

“I’m not saying we’re a championship caliber team,” added Bird. “Some guys here I don’t want on my team. But we’re moving in the right direction.”

The Pacers also are one of the best positioned teams after this season with major contracts of Ford, Jeff Foster and Mike Dunleavy coming off. They’ll be more than $20 million under the current salary cap. It likely will keep Bird around as he seems to finally have gotten the Pacers in position to take those upward steps.

Bird doesn’t preach to the players much or give them the old war stories. He knows players, and he knows they need to find out themselves, just like he did.

“When I played I did not want people bothering me all the time,” Bird said. “If Red (Auerbach) had something to say, it usually was over in 10 seconds.

“NBA players think they know it all,” Bird said with a laugh. “They have a lot of pride. But the intensity of the playoffs is a different level. Teams study you, take away things. It will be interesting to see how guys adjust. This is what it’s all about.”

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