Donnie Walsh feels the same way, and he’s the boss.
It’s typical for those in Walsh’s position to take the “I told you so” stance, claiming to have known all along this was going to happen. But that’s one of the many things what sets Walsh apart. He is utterly unafraid to be honest
And so who better, then, to offer perspective both current and historical than the man who stands as the common thread between all of the Pacers’ Eastern Conference Finals teams?
Q: What are the common threads between this team and the Pacers’ previous conference finals teams?
Walsh: Great chemistry. Total commitment, which differentiates them from other teams we’ve had in the sense that we have young guys that play together, they like each other and they play hard in every game and in every practice. They’ve been able to max out and get better as they’ve gone on. That, I see different from most teams.
Q: The unusual thing this team had to deal with was the adversity of Danny Granger’s injury and a preponderance of youth. How unusual was their success, given those circumstances?
Walsh: I didn’t think they could do it, and they did do it. They surprised me the whole year. It’s one thing to say, ‘OK, Danny’s out, Paul George will be the go-to guy, he’ll create plays for other people,’ and think you’re going to get it done. You couldn’t depend on the fact that Lance (Stephenson) will be in the backcourt too, and he’ll do fine. Both of those things happened with 22-year-old players.
Q: When you enter a series where Stephenson is matched up with Dwyane Wade, doesn’t that kind of crystallize the challenge?
Walsh: Let me tell you: you’re going up against a juggernaut. This is a great team, as was predicted once they got together, and they have become a great team and so you can’t have any illusions about that. You’re going to have to play extremely well to be competitive with this team. I think we all know that, the coaches, front office and players, but we still know we have a chance so that’s what we’re going in there with. You could’ve said the same thing about New York. They played very well this year, had all the elements for a good playoff team and we were able to beat them and I wasn’t sure we could do that.
Q: What is the most important thing you’ve learned about this team thus far?
Walsh: What I’ve learned already about this team is it absolutely, no matter what happens, has a great future – a great future.
Q: What do you hope to learn in the next couple of weeks?
Walsh: What I hope that I learn is they came a lot farther a lot quicker than I’ve ever dreamed. They’ve done it up to this point and I’m not going to bet against them because they’ve been doing it all year long.
Q: Does this team remind you of Larry Brown’s first team in 1993-94, a mix of youth and veterans that struggled early but once it found its stride really took off?
Walsh: I agree with that, and there is that similarity with this. With that team, they had been to the playoffs a lot and couldn’t get past the first round and then all of a sudden Larry comes in and we go to the Eastern Conference Finals. That gave them the confidence and got them over the hump that had been in their way. And once they got confidence and thought they were good, then they became a very, very good team. I think this team has been doing that a little bit last year but moreso this year.
Q: What will it take to beat the Heat?
Walsh: We’ll have to play our best basketball. We’re going to have to play the same kind of defense we’ve been playing all year, and better. We’re going to have to rebound the ball, that’s a strength of ours. We’re going to have to really limit our turnovers which has been our Achilles heel. This team plays a defense that will take advantage of that if we don’t, and then you’re going to have a hard team because once they start playing off turnovers, it looks like a video game or something.
Q: From where you sit, have you been able to enjoy this season?
Walsh: It’s been totally fun, mainly because I didn’t think they could do it until they kept knocking down one obstacle after another and I’m like, ‘Maybe I’m looking at this wrong but they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing.’ And then I got to a point where I just accepted some of these guys had jumped a whole level in their development and were as good as they were playing. Paul George definitely is that. I love George Hill has a guy that keeps the team together, that everybody on the team has trust in. I love what Lance has been able to do this year and he’s progressively gotten better and better as the season went on. David West is right up there with all the players I’ve truly admired on all the teams I’ve had before. And Hibbert has had an outstanding year. He started out as the anchor for our defense and we were winning games because of that. And then at a certain point he started becoming both the defensive anchor and a low-post scorer and that jumped us up another level during the playoffs. It’s been gratifying.
Q. Will it be a challenge to keep the team together?
Walsh: We’ll do our best to make sure we do, that’s for sure. We’ve been able to do it in the past but it’s a new world and all that. That’s our intention, to make sure we keep these guys.
Q. Are you going to ride off into the sunset after this season?
Walsh: I haven’t given it any thought. I’m just on the train following these guys, that’s what I’ve been doing. It’s been unbelievable, and I mean in a good way.