Veteran Pacers fans remember the legendary playoff moments in the franchise's history. Such as the games that won championships in the ABA, Reggie Miller's moments in Madison Square Garden, or Travis Best's three-pointer that saved the final game of the first-round series with Milwaukee and sparked the trip to the NBA Finals in 2000.
Beneath the veneer of the obvious, though, there are equally impressive performances and equally dramatic games that would be remembered just as clearly if the timing had been more favorable – perhaps if they had come in the close-out game of a series, or in a later series, or, in the case of the ABA, in a modern media environment.
They are the Hidden Gems of the Pacers' playoff history. Here, in chronological order, are 10 games, or moments, that deserve to have the dust blown away so they can live again in our memories.
4. 1973 ABA First Round, Game 4
Date: April 5, 1973 Result: Pacers 97, Denver 95/>
This was merely a single victory in a first-round series the Pacers would win 4-1, but it inspired a long-running tradition familiar to fans today.
The Pacers jumped to a 2-0 lead on the Rockets, who had not yet got around to switching their nickname to Nuggets, but lost the third game back in Denver. A sellout crowd of 6,904 – hey, arenas tended to be smaller back then – roared through the first half of Game 4 as the home team took a nine-point lead into the break. The Pacers worked their way back, though, and put themselves in position to take the lead in the final seconds.
During a timeout, Coach Slick Leonard drew up a play for George McGinnis to get the ball near the basket. He was well-covered though, so Darnell Hillman delivered a pass to Billy Keller on the left wing. Keller was just 5-foot-10, but he had a quick first step, a quick release and a knack for shooting off the dribble. He faked, bounced to his left and fired a shot over the 6-4 Claude Terry that swished through the net, giving the Pacers a 96-95 lead with 14 seconds remaining.
Denver obviously was going to put its final shot in the hands of guard Ralph Simpson, who had scored 41 points in the game. Leonard put Roger Brown into the game during the timeout to put a taller defender on Simpson, and Brown helped force him to miss a mid-range jump shot. Dave Robisch rebounded for Denver, but Hillman blocked his shot away. Freddie Lewis emerged from a swirl of flailing bodies with the long rebound, and drew a foul with one second left. With the three-to-hit-two rule in effect, he was told by Leonard to hit only one attempt. He missed the first, hit the second and banged the third off the rim right back to himself at the foul line, ending the game.
An added bonus occurred during the scramble for the long rebound. One of Denver's best players, Byron Beck, either broke or tore a tendon in his pinky finger, and was unable to play when the series resumed in Indianapolis, where the Pacers closed out the series. They went on to eliminate Utah in the second round and Kentucky in the finals for their third ABA championship.
Today, Game 4 in Denver is most notable for what Leonard shouted when Keller hit the game-winning three-pointer: “Boom Baby!” That phrase would become Leonard's signature call for every Pacers three-pointer during his career as the franchise's television and radio analyst, one that continues today. He recalls this game in Denver as the first time he used it, a spontaneous reaction to Keller's dramatic shot.
You would have had to have known Leonard then for it to make sense. He was emotional, he was loose and he was, well, slick. It was common for him to say things like, “Let's go, baby!” while firing up his players. In one of the Pacers' early seasons in the NBA that he coached, the team's marketing motto was “Baby, we're due!” So, when he pumped his fist and shouted “Boom!” as Keller's shot fell through the net, it wasn't much of a stretch for him to quickly add, “Baby!”
It's part of the local lexicon today. Reggie Miller, who had Leonard shouting “Boom Baby!” more than anyone in franchise history, even named his production company Boom Baby Productions. Leonard later took to adding “Boom, boom, boom!” after the initial “Boom Baby” whenever a player hit a particularly clutch three-pointer late in a game. Miller used to ask him after some games, “Did I get a triple on that one?” Most recently, Leonard gave a triple “Boom” to Lance Stephenson after his three-pointer with 34.2 seconds left in Sunday's victory over Oklahoma City.
And to think it all started so innocently with Keller's game-winner in Denver 41 years ago.
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