This was supposed to be the Indiana Pacers’ disposable season.
An 82-game run of built-in excuses and fans relegated to applauding hustle because, frankly, victories were going to be witnessed inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse about as often as Russ Schoene jerseys.
And not so much as a whiff of playoff contention.
It was all going according to script.
For a while.
January was over, and there were the Pacers at 17-32. Right where they were supposed to be. In the minds of some, maybe even better than they were supposed to be sans the services of Paul George.
Then it happened.
The schedule softened somewhat, and coach Frank Vogel’s crew began exhibiting a doggedness teams 15 games below .500 aren’t known to demonstrate.
Put another way, no Denver Nuggets huddle chant here.
Had Pacers players pulled a “1, 2, 3 … six weeks” the way the underachieving morons in Colorado did — which, it should be noted, contributed to getting a great guy (Brian Shaw) fired — Vogel might have imploded right then and there.
As for what Larry Bird’s response would have been, scaling the icy terrain of Mount Everest in deck shoes might be easier than trying to mentally process that.
This is what can take place when a culture of winning has been established through the efforts of quality human beings.
The team and scrapping for as many wins as possible remains the focus no matter what skeptics or the current divisional standings imply.
“We” takes precedence over “me.”
If you as an executive, coach or player aren’t on board, well, there’s the door. And by the way, it locks from the inside.
Maybe Indiana wasn’t going to content for a No. 1 playoff seed or send one or two players to the All-Star Game the way we’ve grown accustomed.
It didn’t mean one of the Eastern Conference’s lower three seeds (Nos. 6 through 8) weren’t within view.
A foot in the postseason door means hope, particularly in the East where the best teams (Atlanta, Cleveland and Toronto) are all beatable if the Pacers continue playing like they are.
A virtually unnoticed 114-109 win against an awful Detroit team kicked off a modest three-game win streak, which in time evolved into 13 victories in 15 games.
Foot. Door. Hope.
The best compliment that can be paid these Pacers is that not one, two or even three players are responsible for the about-face of the past month-and-a-half.
We might not be pounding the “Blue Collar, Gold Swagger” drum as loudly as before, but the team’s play of late is the perfect promotional device to every poster or sign carrying those four words.
Human scowl David West remains tougher than a $4 rib-eye; Indianapolis native George Hill has been sensational since returning Jan. 23 from knee and groin injuries, while veteran forward Luis Scola might be enjoying his finest NBA season.
Then there is Rodney Stuckey, the former Detroit Pistons guard signed to a one-year deal for the league minimum by Indiana in July.
The 6-foot-5 Stuckey averages 13.1 points a game for the season and 20.1 since a Feb. 20 triumph at Philadelphia.
Suffice it to say Stuckey’s agent is positioned to enjoy tremendous negotiating leverage once the season is over.
I would love to see Stuckey running the court alongside West, Hill, a properly mended George and even Roy Hibbert (he says with a straight face) next season, but that isn’t my call.
Bird, general manager Kevin Pritchard and whoever else is privy to Herb Simon’s checkbook will work the numbers to the best of their ability in an attempt to return the franchise to prominence.
Maybe it’s with Stuckey. Maybe it’s without.
All the same, these 2014-15 Indiana Pacers are becoming a tough act to follow.