Classic Confrontations: Pacers vs. ColonelsA slightly different version of this article was originally published in the December 2004 issue of Basketball Digest.
The Indiana Pacers appeared in five ABA Finals, won three ABA titles and became known as the Boston Celtics of the upstart league. Pacers’ broadcaster Bobby “Slick” Leonard, who coached the team during those years, pinpoints the moment that Indiana’s great run began: “The beginning of the Pacers was in 1968-69, the seventh game (of the Eastern Division Semifinals) against Kentucky. We got down 3-1 to Kentucky and came back and won the series.”
That was the only comeback from a 3-1 deficit in ABA playoff history; it has happened just seven times in five decades of the NBA playoffs. Pacers’ center Mel Daniels has a simple, direct explanation of how the Pacers did it: “The adjustment was we got (ticked) off. They started talking trash that we were overrated, overhyped.”
Indiana cruised to a 4-1 victory over Kentucky in the 1970 Eastern Division Finals. Incomparable Pacers’ swingman Roger Brown increased his scoring from 23.1 ppg in the regular season to 28.5 ppg in the playoffs, capping the run by averaging 45.7 ppg in the last three games of the ABA Finals against the L.A. Stars.
San Antonio Spurs’ legend George “Iceman” Gervin will never forget his duels with Brown: “That guy did not get enough credit. He has to be one of the toughest one-on-one guys who ever played...Roger was a student of the game. He probably had one of the best first steps in basketball…Matter of fact, I learned that from him—that first step. When I went to the guard spot it really helped me to take my game to the next level.”
Darnell Hillman joined the Pacers as a rookie in 1971 and played countless games of one-on-one against Brown, recalling, “I only beat him twice…(but) I was getting better and better defensively where there would be no matchup or assignment out there that I couldn’t take.”
The 1969 and 1970 Kentucky teams were led by the long range marksmanship of 6-0 Louie Dampier (who ranked in the top five in the ABA in three point field goal percentage for eight straight years) and 6-3 Darel Carrier (who ranked in the top three in the ABA in three point field goal percentage in each of the ABA’s first four seasons). In 1970-71, rookie Dan Issel provided a major upgrade at center; he shifted to forward the next season with the arrival of Artis Gilmore, who won Rookie of the Year and MVP.
Neither Indiana nor Kentucky had the league’s best record in 1972-73, but both made it to the ABA Finals. Issel averaged 23.6 ppg and 11 rpg in the series, while Gilmore posted 22.1 ppg, 17.3 rpg, 5.3 apg and 4.0 bpg. Second year player George McGinnis added a new dimension to the Pacers’ attack: he played point power forward a generation before Kevin Garnett did. McGinnis notes, “I was probably one of the first—if not the first—big power forwards who could come out on the floor and handle the ball…In our offense I could bring the ball up.” McGinnis averaged 22.3 ppg and 13.7 rpg against Kentucky, scoring 27 points in an 88-81 game seven victory at Freedom Hall in Kentucky.
The Pacers signed veteran 6-6 power forward Gus Johnson late in the season and he played a key role in game seven, guarding the 7-2 Gilmore when Daniels got in foul trouble. Leonard explains, “This is how strong he was in his upper body. He pushed Artis—by the time Artis got the ball in what should have been the low post, Gus had walked him right out of there, walked him right out 15 feet on the floor.” Daniels adds, “Back then you could do that. See, big guys played defense from the free throw line extended. They would not let you get to the block.”
Kentucky avenged this loss by beating Indiana 4-1 in the 1975 ABA Finals. Gilmore dominated the paint, averaging 25 ppg, 21 rpg, and 1.2 bpg in the series, while first year Coach Hubie Brown worked his Xs and Os magic. McGinnis had 27.4 ppg, 14 rpg and 6.4 apg in defeat, numbers that actually trailed his overall playoff averages that season (32.3 ppg, 15.9 rpg and 8.2 apg).
The “Interstate 65” rivalry ended anticlimactically with Kentucky winning a 1976 first round mini-series 2-1. Colonels’ owner John Y. Brown accepted a buyout in lieu of joining the Pacers and three other ABA clubs in the NBA for the 1976-77 season.
posted by David Friedman @ 11:48 PM