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“I left five years ago, and at that point in time he basically laid it out and said this is what it’s going to take,” Carlisle said in a phone interview from Dallas. “It has played out exactly how he pictured it.”

Playing in small-market Indiana, Bird hasn’t had the luxury of an open checkbook to chase max salary players in a max salary league. He’s had to worry far more about fit, chemistry and work ethic, and that’s just fine with him.

“I knew it was going to be tough, and it’s still tough,” he said. “We don’t drive revenues like the big market teams. We can’t go after $17 million-dollar players. We’ve got to go a different way, and we’ve got to do it a piece at a time.”

The new-look, veteran group has restored the Pacers‘ gritty, blue-collar attitude and helped them to the No. 3 seed in the East and had the fifth-best record (42-24) in the league.

“It’s obvious why he got executive of the year,” said Vogel, who finished third in coach of the year balloting this year. “If you look at how this particular team has been built, it’s really remarkable. To be able to build this team with mid-lottery picks and trades is just _ it’s near impossible to do.”

Now the Pacers are getting prepared to host Game 3 against the Heat on Thursday night. The starless group gave the Heat’s three studs _ LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh _ all they could handle in a 95-86 loss in Game 1. Bosh went down with an abdominal injury and the Pacers tied the series with a 78-75 grinder in Game 2.

With a promising young core and plenty of salary cap flexibility expected to be there for him this summer, Bird and the Pacers don’t figure to be going away anytime soon.

“Small market teams have got to be careful with how they spend their money,” Carlisle said. “Larry has created the perfect scenario of great young talent and flexibility. That franchise is in a phenomenal position.”


AP freelance writer Cliff Brunt in Indianapolis contributed to this report.