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Pacers convinced they have pieces in place to chase down Miami, win title

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INDIANAPOLIS - Larry Bird came up with Indiana's championship blueprint.

He still believes it can work even after a second straight discouraging playoff exit in the Eastern Conference finals to Miami amid cries for change. The old-school Bird contends now is the time to stay the course.

"We've got a young team and we'd like to keep them together and let them develop together," said Bird, the Pacers' president of basketball operations.

Indianapolis fans have heard all this before.

A decade ago, across town, the Colts dealt with similar complaints after losing to New England in the playoffs following the 2003 and 2004 seasons and then blew home-field advantage with a divisional-round loss to Pittsburgh to open the 2005 playoffs. Colts President Bill Polian never flinched, keeping the core group together another year and the Colts eventually broke through with a second-half rally to beat the Pats in the AFC Championship following the 2006 season. Two weeks later, they won the Super Bowl.

Now it's Bird's chance to steal a page from the Colts' playbook.

"It's hard to get there (the NBA Finals), I know that," he said. "I feel we had a great season for this reason: They set their goal to have the No. 1 seed and they did. They set their goal to play Miami again and they did. But we ran into a better basketball team. They went nine or 10 deep and we didn't. And they've been there before and we haven't."

So how does a team unwilling to pay the luxury tax, with four starters already under contract and the fifth ready to cash in on free agency create enough manoeuvrability to beat the Heat?

Bird and coach Frank Vogel both talked Monday about considering trades, and Bird even suggested he might make a move to get back into the first round. He traded the Pacers' top pick to Phoenix last summer for Luis Scola. But they expect most of the changes to come from the roster that already exists.

"I think with internal growth we can, but we're going to look at all the external possibilities as well," Vogel said. "We're going to try and make sure we grow this team in the right direction. We've gone from the first round (in 2011) to the second round (in 2012) to the third round the last two years and now we've got to take that next step next year."

The talk around town and around the league since Friday night's season-ending debacle has centred on what the Pacers need and what they're willing to do to close the gap with Miami.

There's been speculation about trading the inconsistent Roy Hibbert, a two-time All-Star, or nonconventional point guard George Hill, or both. There's also been a raging debate about re-signing Lance Stephenson. Bird's preference appears to be bringing everyone back.

He advised Hibbert to spend time this summer with Hall of Fame centres such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bill Walton. Bird also said he wanted Hill to be more active on offence, noting he "loves" the way Hill defends and that he plays "the hardest position on the court." As for Stephenson, Bird made it clear he wanted him back, too, despite all the antics.

But will that be enough to catch Miami or stave off other teams in the East?

Chicago would be dangerous if Derrick Rose comes back healthy, Brooklyn might emerge as a stronger contender with the injured Brook Lopez on the court, the Wizards are emerging as one of the league's best young teams and the perimeter-shooting Hawks, who pushed Indiana to seven games in the first round, could be better in their second season under coach Mike Budenholzer, too.

Bird and Vogel know this: The Pacers need better bench play, more consistency, fewer turnovers and more experience to win a title.

"We've built something here that gives us a chance every year," Vogel said. "I believing in our coaching staff, how we push this team and I really believe in our talent level. I think when you have the things operating like that, you feel like you have a chance to win it every year."

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