Basketball / Sports

Indiana Pacers forward Paul George drives the ball around Miami Heat's Chris Andersen in the fourth quarter during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Sunday, May 18, 2014, in Miami. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/MCT)

Pacers show solidarity in overcoming late-season adversity

INDIANAPOLIS -- It was considered a huge victory when the Indiana Pacers defeated the Miami Heat on Sunday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

In reality, their biggest win of the season was nowhere to be found on any type of stat sheet.

What the Pacers have done on the court is nothing compared to their dealings off it. A season full of outside distractions made it appear they would never reach this point.

Yet now the Pacers are just one victory from taking control of the series. With Game 2 set for Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, they take pride in how they have handled the adversity much as the way they did the Heat's defense Sunday.

"I think it helped us, brought us together," guard Lance Stephenson said. "All the drama, and all the stuff that's been coming out with the media, it definitely brought us together and made us more of a family."

The Pacers at one point were the class of the league before basketball became the secondary story. They won 33 of their first 40 games. By the NBA All-Star Break, they were destined for the top seed in the East.

And then an avalanche of the wrong headlines surfaced.

It led to their coach's job security being questioned and criticism of their top two players. There was even an alleged late-season scuffle between a pair of teammates that threatened to turn things upside down just before the postseason began.

"We had our battles throughout the season where we just had rough times," forward Paul George said.

The Pacers finished the season by losing 11 of the last 21 games. Soon, the demise was linked to a gossip-website reporting a rumor of a rift between George and center Roy Hibbert over a woman.

There were claims of George, a preseason MVP candidate, being unready to take the next step. Hibbert dealt with fans and pundits saying he was overrated. As the losses piled, various national media outlets reported coach Frank Vogel would be fired if the Pacers did not reach the Eastern finals.

"In this business, you never get too comfortable," Vogel said of the rumors. "That's how I've always felt anyway. I really didn't have any concern with it."

The turmoil grew even more when Yahoo! Sports reported Stephenson and guard Evan Turner were involved in a fight during a practice. The incident, which reportedly left Turner with a facial cut, occurred the day before their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks.

The distraction was followed by the Pacers trailing the eighth-seeded Hawks, the only team with a losing record in the playoffs, the entire series before winning the final two games.

Order has since been restored, with Vogel calling the transformation similar to when the franchise recovered from the on-court crawl with the Detroit Pistons in 2005.

"We have high-character guys here," Vogel said. "That's what this whole team is built on. Back when we had troubles with our image six or seven years ago, (General Manager) Larry Bird started from scratch saying we were going to bring in high-character people, people that just don't get in trouble but people that are able to handle things like that. ... I think they've handled all the outside stuff pretty well."

It seems players have almost gone out of the way to show they are past the issues. During a recent post-game television interview, Hibbert and George spoke of their strong friendship in an attempt to squash the rumors.

Talks of solidarity dominated the locker room after the Pacers' Game 1 victory.

"What we do great here is everybody's pulling for one another and everybody's got each other's backs regardless of what's going on and what people are going through," George said.

"No individual ever feels like they're in a fight alone. That helps with your confidence, that helps with believing in yourself, believing in the system, your team."

(c)2014 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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