Indiana Pacers were undoubtly one of the best teams of the 90s. They were not a great regular season team, as you can see their winning percentage is not that good, but they were real fighters when they had to, at the play-offs. A really hard team with a fanatical home crowd. They were made 9 play-offs appearances and they played four times in the Eastern Conference Finals and lost all four of them.
The definite superstar of the Pacers throughout the 90s was Reggie Miller and all the 90s Pacers’ teams were built around him. He was drafted at 1987 and since then the Pacers team never looked back, they created a contender team with Miller as they cornerstone and they finally made the NBA Finals even at the beginning of the next decade (1999-00 season).
During the first three years of the 90s, the Pacers were not a recognizable force in the league, their winning percentage was around 50% and they qualified for the play-offs, as 7th seeded team in East, in each one of those seasons. They didn’t do well in the play-offs either as they were eliminated by the Pistons (3-0) and by the Celtics two times in a row (3-2, and 3-0) respectively. Pacers were a very young team back then with Reggie Miller, Rik Smits and Detlef Schrempf been playing in the league for less than 5 years each one of them. The Pacers experienced star was Chuck Person that averaged 18.8 points in those three seasons, he was not a bad player but he was not a player that a team could base its hopes for success as he was a bit colourful (not in a bad way) and inconsistent. From the way they played against the Celtics in 1991 play-offs you could understand that something good was starting in Indiana.
The New York Rivalry and the Best Pacers Team (1993-1999)
The next three years of the 90s were not the same for the Pacers, they made some changes (Chuck Person was traded to Minnesota) and their young stars were getting mature enough to pursue higher goals. In those three years the Pacers played two consecutive times at the the Eastern Conference Finals (1994, 1995) and lost both of them. But there is only one thing that can characterize this era for the Pacers, the battles against the New York Knicks. Their battles and the spectacular performances of Pacers’ star, Reggie Miller characterized the whole NBA play-offs at 1994 and 1995.
1992-93 was the last season of Pacers’ head coach Bob Hill and they made they performed the usual way during the regular season (41-41) and they made it to the play-offs where as number 8 seed had to play against a powerful Knicks team that had the best record in the Eastern Conference. Pat Riley as the head coach of the Knicks at that time had created a tough team that was looking to face and beat the Chicago Bulls. Pacers’ were not ready to face the Knicks and were defeated 3-1.
1993-94 was the first season with Larry Brown as a head coach of the Pacers and Detlef Schrempf (that was an all-star and NBA’s sixth man last year) was traded to Seattle for Derrick McKey. This created scepticism amongst the Pacers fans and criticism on Pacers’ GM (Donnie Walsh) moves. However, Brown and the Pacers had their standard regular season (45-37) and qualified as number 5 seed for the play-offs. In the first round they swept the young Magic team (3-0) and in the second round the ambitious, first in the East, Hawks team (4-2). In both of the rounds their opponents had the home-court advantage. Their success in the first two rounds brought them, for the first time in the 90s, to the Eastern Conference Finals where the team that eliminated them last season, was waiting. The New York Knicks were not afraid of the Pacers (they had no reason to be) in fact they were arrogant and did not see the Pacers coming. One of the greatest play-offs series that I had the opportunity to watch took place and found the Knicks winners at the end (4-3) but the Pacers had also won the respect of their opponents and every NBA fan around the world. A remarkable moment was the performance of Reggie Miller during the fourth quarter of the 5th game, where he scored 25 points in the fourth quarter and won the game for the Pacers in Madison Square Garden that gave them the lead 3-2 in the series. Knicks were able to bounce back after that and win the next game in Market Square Arena (Indianapolis) and the last game in New York.
1994-95 was a different season for the Pacers, the fans had expectations, themselves had expectations after last year’s great play-offs run. Larry Brown had done a great debut at Pacers’ bench and was preparing the team for greater things. The arrival of Mark Jackson made the Pacers even stronger, a good point guard that would be able to find Reggie Miller off the screens was the missing piece of the Pacers’ puzzle. 1994-95 was the first 50-win (52-30) season since the Pacers joined the NBA. This was a sign for what is going to follow. They qualified as 2nd seeded team for the play-offs and swept the Hawks (3-0) at the first round in a furious way that it seemed like they were anxious to face their rivals at the next round. I believe that Pacers would be really disappointed if Knicks didn’t qualify for the 2nd round and didn’t give them the opportunity for a revenge. This time was the eastern conference semi-finals but it seemed like it was the NBA finals, a great series again. This time though the Pacers did it, they won 4-3 (Knicks had home-court advantage) and the two teams showed from the first game (pt1, pt2, pt3, pt4, pt5, pt6, pt7, pt8, pt9) at Madison Square Garden that this was going to be a great battle, as nobody that has seen that game will never forget Miller scoring 8 points in the last 16.4 seconds of the game to erase a 6-point Knicks’ lead and steal the win for the Pacers. The Pacers were not able to utilize this great success and were defeated (4-3) in Eastern Conference Finals by the young and filled with talent Orland Magic team (Hardaway, O’ Neal), after a really tough series.
The next two years 96 and 97 were not that good for the Pacers, they had many injury-problems, they qualified for the play-offs in 1996 but eliminated in the first round by the Hawks (3-2) and stayed out of the play-offs (the only time during the 90s) in 1997.
1997-98 was the start of a new era for the Pacers with Larry Bird as their head coach and it was their best season during the 90s. This team was the best team that Pacers had during the 90s and it was almost the same team that reached the NBA Finals in 1999-00 season. Larry Bird took a good team and made it great, it is a shame that he coached only for three seasons. He brought the veteran Chris Mullin and found a way to put Jalen Rose in the mix. Pacers recorder 58-24 (their best record in the 90s) and qualified third for the eastern conference play-offs. They eliminated the Cavaliers 3-1 in the first round and in the second round met again with their fierce rivals New York Knicks. But this time the Pacers were by far the best team of the series and eliminated the Knicks easily (4-1). It was clear that Pacers were ready to play against the Champs (Bulls) but nobody expected them to be such a difficult challenge for the great but aging Chicago Bulls. I will use a phrase that the presenter of the Chicago Bulls Dynasty documentary used “Pacers’ team has been built to defeat the Chicago Bulls”. It was like that, they were tough, experienced, talented and had the most difficult home-court with fanatical support from their crowd. Indiana was always a basketball state (except from a racing state) and the fans were and are crazy for their professional basketball team as any other basketball team within their state. That Eastern Conference Finals series was just great the Bulls were so good but the Pacers were coming back at them all the time.
||Indiana at Chicago 79-85
||Indiana at Chicago 98-104
||Chicago at Indiana 105-107
||Chicago at Indiana 94-96
||Indiana at Chicago 87-106
||Chicago at Indiana 89-92
||Indiana at Chicago 83-88
One more time Reggie Miller’s heroics kept the Pacers alive as he scored 13 points in the last 4 minutes of the 3rd game of the series and scored the decisive three-pointer at 96-94 win in game 4. But even this well-organized and hungry for success team was not able to beat the Chicago Bulls and the Pacers did not reach the NBA Finals once more.
The last shot for the 90’s Pacers to reach the NBA Finals was the 1998-99 short season (50-game season because of the lock-out). They qualified for the play-offs with the second best record in the East (33-17 tied with Miami Heat). They marched to the Eastern Conference Finals after they swept both the Bucks (3-0) and the 76ers (4-0) to meet their rivals once again. They were the hot favourites against a renewed New York team (Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, Latrell Sprewell, Marcus Camby) that qualified last for the paly-offs but had upset Miami (3-2) and Atlanta (4-0). Pacers had the home-court advantage, they seemed unbeatable as they have destroyed their opponents in the first two rounds and nobody believed that the Knicks could surprise the Pacers and eliminate them (except from myself that I had foreseen, before the play-offs, that that Knicks’ team was good enough to reach the NBA Finals and I have witnesses on this one). Pacers lost the first game (at home) but won the second where Patrick Ewing got injured and did not play for the rest of the play-offs. This was their best shot, Ewing-less Knicks should have been an easy target for that Pacers team, but they didn’t except that the aged Ewing was actually slowing down the young Knicks team and they found out in the worst way as they were able to win only one more game of the remaining and finally be eliminated 4-2 by a great team effort from the Knicks in both sides of the court that defensively was able to contain Reggie Miller and provide multiple scoring options offensively and this how the story of the 90s Pacers ends.
Indiana Pacers was a really good team of the 90s but their inability to reach the NBA Finals and compete for the title brought them in the 10th position of the top ten ranking for the best teams of the 90s.
All-90s Pacers Team*
* The rules for the selection of the all-90s teams can be found at the about page.