Young Pacers exceed expectations by advancing to Eastern Conference semifinals

INDIANAPOLIS — Coach Rick Carlisle kept insisting the Indiana Pacers should strive for more than just making the playoffs.

He thought his young team could win, advance, maybe even play into late May or June.

On Thursday night, Indiana took one gigantic leap forward by routing the Milwaukee Bucks 120-98 in Game 6 to reach the Eastern Conference semifinals for the first time since 2014.

“You talk about getting to the playoffs and it’s like in college when you have a really good team and you talk about getting to the Final Four and then all of a sudden just getting to the Final Four is kind of where your expectation was,” Carlisle said. “You’ve got to think bigger than that and I’ve said for two years now we’re a franchise with big dreams. We don’t know exactly where this is going to go, but you have to have big dreams and aspirations to continue to grow.”

The Pacers will face an old nemesis in the New York Knicks, who advanced with a six-game victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Thursday.

For longtime Pacers fans, the series is sure to rekindle all images from the 1990s when Reggie Miller and Spike Lee became iconic figures in postseason lore. For most of these Pacers, though, the only memories from those battles come from the stories they’ve heard, the highlights they’ve seen or the game tapes they’ve watched.

Just half of the dozen Indiana players who logged minutes Thursday were older than a year old when the Pacers beat New York 4-2 to win the 2000 Eastern Conference title and make their first and, so far, only appearance in The Finals.

Yet here they are, the league’s highest-scoring team, ready to begin another series on the road against a higher-seeded foe fully confident it can keep winning.

“I’m excited but I think this is more about Indianapolis and the Indiana fans,” said center Myles Turner, the longest tenured Pacer at nine seasons — and now a first-time playoff winner. “I think they’ve been waiting a long time to get back to this, and we don’t want to stop here. We still have a lot to do, we still have a lot more work to do.”

It’s not just Indiana or players such as Turner who have been itching to reach this place.

Carlisle, who ranks 12th with 943 career victories, will make his first second-round appearance since 2011 when he led the Dallas Mavericks to their lone NBA title.

That might not have been what Pacers fans anticipated when Carlisle returned to Indiana in 2021-22 with a roster that seemed poised for a resurgence. But the Pacers opted to break things up in February 2022 with midseason trade that sent All-Star forward Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento for Haliburton.

Since then, Carlisle has been trying to balance those teaching moments with some genuine nurturing on a fulfilling journey back to the postseason.

“Its’ been super fun with this group,” Carlisle. said. “I mean when you work with a guy like Tyrese Haliburton on a day-to-day basis, there’s just nothing better in coaching than that. There just isn’t.”

The question now is how much further can these Pacers climb this postseason?

Carlisle and his players aren’t making any promises or projections. Athough they did hold a 2-1 edge over the Knicks in the season series, including a split of the two games played at Madison Square Garden.

And some of the lessons learned in beating Milwaukee will only help in this next series, too.

“They’re just great competitors and to knock them out, it is difficult, it is really difficult,” Carlisle said, referring to the Bucks. “It’s hard to go through a playoff series against an experienced team like this as your first time in the playoffs, and we had a lot of guys that were first-timers but they learned the things you need to learn along the way.”



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