All it took was a six-game losing streak after the Indiana Pacers opened this NBA season with a home victory over Philadelphia.
People started writing these guys off in October.
An eight-game losing streak and then a seven-game skid later on further convinced fans and media that this season was a lost cause.
Social media was filled with commentary about how the Pacers would at least get a high draft pick to help rebuild a team that would have two-time All-Star Paul George back next season.
But the Pacers didn’t quit. Nor did they lose faith that once the roster regained some health, it could turn around.
That it has, with George Hill starting at point guard, nine wins in 11 games, and an optimism once thought inconceivable. The Pacers (26-34) enter Friday’s game against the Chicago Bulls just a half game behind Charlotte for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot.
If they keep winning, and the schedule is favorable with five of the next six at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and the lone road game against the New York Knicks, the Pacers could do more than just making the playoffs. They could actually improve their playoff seeding to maybe sixth.
Yeah, that’s maybe a stretch, but so was thinking back in October that any of us would be talking about this team contending for a playoff spot.
Here’s the thing about these guys, perhaps something many of us don’t understand because we aren’t inside that locker room. The Pacers have some character guys. Even when they were losing, and some of those close games were incredibly disheartening, the players still believed they could come back.
Heck, even head coach Frank Vogel has admitted he had his doubts about how the team would handle the losses. But Vogel never let that stop him from being positive, from reassuring what was possible if this team stuck together.
As forward David West said last week, writing off this season as a lost cause never entered their thoughts. He points a finger at Vogel for picking guys up, always building confidence when it was shaken.
So now the Pacers enter the stretch run of the season. They’ve got 22 games remaining, a dozen of those at home. But it will still be a bit of an uphill climb — 13 of the remaining opponents have winning records.
That’s how it should be. If the Pacers belong in the postseason, they’re going to have to defeat enough of the better teams to prove it.
And there’s another possible factor to consider — George might just make it back in time to help. Nobody will expect the team leader to be 100 percent, but he recently started practicing and holds out hope that he can make it back in two or three weeks.
If George can play with any kind of effectiveness, if that mended right leg can handle some wear and tear, the Pacers could be a dangerous team in the final weeks.
That’s not to jump off a cliff and suggest this team will contend for a title. Making the playoffs was the goal. President Larry Bird and Vogel have reiterated that objective.
There was a time when hearing that prompted some to snicker. Not anymore.
That says something for what the Pacers have been able to accomplish this season. They’ve had 184 games lost to injury, yet are still standing. And fighting.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.