INDIANAPOLIS | The Pacers grew up this season.
They overcame the loss of their top scorer to win a division title and make their deepest playoff run in nine years. They put the defending champion Miami Heat on the brink of elimination and recaptured their fans in this basketball-loving state.
Now one of the league's youngest teams insists that Monday night's dismal season-ending loss won't stymie their ascension. It will only make this team better and tougher.
"First time for a lot of us to be in this situation, Game 7," budding star Paul George said after the 99-76 rout ended Indiana's run in the Eastern Conference finals. "They (the Heat) really ramped up the pressure. We should have taken a deep breath and remembered it's just a basketball game and doing what we've been doing all year long."
A year ago, the Pacers were pondering so many other things heading into the offseason.
George had struggled mightily against Miami in the playoffs and promised to return a different player. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh continually sliced up Indiana's defense. And with such a young roster, many wondered how long it would take this team to mature.
Turns out, not long at all.
George delivered on his promise, taking the reins when Danny Granger started the season on the bench because of an injured left knee, and wound up being selected the NBA's Most Improved Player. Center Roy Hibbert signed his big contract, spent the offseason training MMA style and eventually showed he was worth all that money by dominating the middle in the playoffs. Forward David West returned to form, providing inside muscle and veteran expertise to help stabilize the Pacers when times got tough, and George Hill and Lance Stephenson fit neatly into their new roles.
Together, Indiana turned the conference finals into the most compelling playoff series of the postseason and they didn't even have to be perfect to nearly upset the defending champs.
Coach Frank Vogel pulled his rim protector, Hibbert, out in overtime of Game 1 and when George overplayed James on the final play, the four-time MVP drove in for an easy game-winning layup as the buzzer sounded. The Pacers failed to protect their home court in Game 3, blew a halftime lead at Miami in Game 5 and a first-quarter lead in Game 7 at Miami.
The missed opportunities prevented Indiana from turning the NBA Finals into an old ABA donnybrook with San Antonio, and the scary part is what the Pacers can do next — if they keep the core group together.
Indiana's top offseason priority will be re-signing West, who heads into free agency after posting averages of 17.1 points and 7.7 rebounds during the season and virtually identical numbers in the playoffs. Despite speculation that the 6-foot-9, 250-pound soon-to-be 33-year-old West might rejoin ex-teammate Chris Paul, West has continued to make it perfectly clear where he would like to play next season.
"This is my group. These are my guys. You know, I can't see myself going anywhere else," West said after Monday's loss. "We're the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, one of the top four teams in the league, in my estimation, based on this year. This group is a solid group. It gives me as an individual the best chance to accomplish the goals that I have left in terms of my future, and that's competing at this stage of the game every single year from here on out."
The question is how much can this small-market team afford?
Last summer, Indiana gave big contracts to Hibbert and Hill. The Pacers also face the costly proposition of trying to re-sign George and Stephenson, who are scheduled to become restricted free agents in 2014, while trying to improve a bench that didn't provide enough scoring punch in the conference finals.
The Pacers must also decide what to do with Granger, who led the Pacers in scoring each of the previous five seasons. In 2012-13, he played in only five games and watched from the bench as the Pacers came within one win of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since Reggie Miller & Co. in 2000
Granger's absence gave Indiana a glimpse into what the future could be.
At age 23, George led the team in scoring (17.4), made his first All-Star appearance, was a third-team All-NBA choice and a second-team choice on the league's all-defensive team. Then in the playoffs, he showed everyone in the playoffs why he's an emerging superstar.
Stephenson also took advantage of the move from career backup to NBA first-time starter and delivered two key postseason performances that helped Indiana play into June.
If Granger comes back healthy, it would give the Pacers another big scorer and perhaps deliver the one missing link to get past Miami.
With Granger's salary expected to top $14 million next season, the Pacers could to move the 30-year-old to add another big-time scorer in the backcourt or depth to the bench.
"I expect to be back in the starting lineup," Granger said.
But if this season demonstrated one thing, it was this: They don't need Granger to be a contender.
They won the Central Division by 3½ games over Derrick Rose-less Chicago, upset second-seeded New York by rendering NBA scoring champ Carmelo Anthony ineffective in the fourth quarter and then beat up Miami inside.
Indiana finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in defensive field goal percentage, 3-point defensive field goal percentage and rebounding while finishing second in scoring defense. And in a league that has gone small, the Pacers are winning by going big.
That blueprint nearly worked this year and it could keep them in contention for a title for another decade.
"Again, we've got the same goals we had last summer," West said. "Our only focus is going to be to beat Miami. I mean, that's what it was at the beginning of the year, and I don't see that changing in the foreseeable future."