No one ever said finishing out 2013-14 strong was going to be easy for the Indiana Pacers.
Or maybe they did.
The way the Pacers are playing, you would think someone told them they've already sewn up the No. 1 seed they openly covet. But they haven't.
At 46-17, the Pacers are clinging to the East's top spot, 1.5 games in front of the equally reeling Miami Heat. Only the Heat won't be wallowing in their sorrows much longer.
Losses to the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls are going to happen. Miniature losing streaks are going to happen. The thing about the Heat is they have a tendency to bounce back. That's also going to happen.
Three straight NBA Finals appearances and two consecutive championships have made the Heat nothing if not dependable. Their regular-season efforts will always fluctuate, but they're still the Heat. They're still the reigning champions.
And at a time when the Pacers should be putting more distance between themselves and a vacillating Miami, they're stumbling, losing in a variety of ways at the worst possible time.
Struggles, Struggles Everywhere
There's no mistaking Indiana's present struggles for inevitable postseason failure.
Coach Frank Vogel's reputation has earned respect and faith. The Pacers' performance tracing back to last year's Eastern Conference Finals right up until now has been impeccable.
But it's now that's the problem.
Since trading Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers, the Pacers have been alright, and "alright" isn't good enough. By Eastern Conference standards, it is. The Pacers can continue seesawing and still have enough gusto and wins to secure a top-two playoff spot.
Anyone who has watched and listened to the Pacers, though, knows pedestrian performances won't suffice. They're after something more prestigious and pride themselves on being a cut above the rest—not drifting back toward the pack.
The Pacers are winless in their last four games. Their losing streak, however, was preceded by five straight wins. Yet even then, we saw their foundation beginning to crumble.
Near misses against the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz were unnerving, and they laid the groundwork for what followed against the Golden State Warriors, Charlotte Bobcats, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks: complete collapses.
Call the loss to Charlotte a fluke. Call losses to Houston, Dallas and Golden State a Western Conference hangover. Call them whatever you like—the Pacers are struggling on both ends of the floor.
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There are (almost) no surprises when it comes to their offense. They've always been an inconsistent bunch prone to stagnation and stretches of anemia. It's the defense that has been so troubling.
The Pacers only faced one top-10 offense (Rockets) before their loss to Dallas, yet their defense ranks 12th during that same span. For bad-to-mediocre offensive teams, middling defense isn't option. Indiana has to be elite.
Over the last four contests, though, it's been rather submissive.
During their four-game losing streak, the Pacers have loosely defended their opponents—and that's putting it lightly.
My stance on Pacers lately has generally been unconcerned -- regular season malaise. But last night was really bad.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) March 8, 2014
These aren't especially superior offensive teams, either. The Warriors rank 12th in efficiency, while the Bobcats check in at 25th. Only the Rockets and Mavericks are fluid net-shredders (fifth and tied for third, respectively). And it was Golden State that actually beat the Pacers at their own defensive game.
Contributions are also virtually down across the board. Initially, the Pacers were one of the league's most well-balanced squads, using team-oriented basketball to rack up wins. Now they're straying away from the selfless unity that catapulted them to the top.
Here's a look at how their starting lineup fared through the three games prior to the matchup against Dallas:
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Now, here are the Fab Five's per-game numbers for the season:
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Paul George and Lance Stephenson have struggled more than anyone, caroming open shots off every part of the rim or sapping valuable seconds off the shot clock with superfluous dribbling. Where the Pacers offense was once pleasantly average, it's now a pallid disaster.
So, yeah, it hasn't been pretty for Indiana. Nor is it guaranteed to get better.
Still a Ways to Go
After Dallas, the Pacers enjoy four games against clearly inferior opponents, playing the Celtics and Detroit Pistons once, and woeful Philadelphia 76ers twice. One could even throw a fifth game against the maddeningly enigmatic New York Knicks in there as well.
Then it's off to the races.
In a span of seven games, the Pacers will play six teams over .500, including matchups against the surging Chicago Bulls (twice), Washington Wizards, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Heat themselves. When facing those same teams this season, the Pacers are a combined 6-2, but playing their current brand of basketball won't help secure wins during that crucial stretch.
What's more, Miami isn't that far removed from an eight-game winning streak. Their three-game slide has captured headlines and incited doubt, but 1.5 games is a deficit they can erase with 22 left to play, two of which come against the Pacers.
For all the Heat's current struggles, Indiana doesn't want to face them in its current state. That 1.5-game lead could feasibly turn into a half-game deficit after those two contests, leaving the Pacers to match the Heat win-for-win to finish 2013-14.
The Pacers, who have spent most of this season winning at an ungodly rate, won't want to thrust their faltering selves into that situation.
Days of Reckoning Ahead
"We're trying for that No. 1 seed," Vogel told ESPN's Brian Windhorst in November. "We're going for it."
Those words ring true even now, four months later, with the Pacers squandering invaluable opportunities and time. Those words have defined their season.
No matter how the regular season concludes, be it with the No. 1 or 2 seed, the Pacers are a great basketball team, built for sustainable playoff success.
But only if they play like the Pacers.
What we're seeing right now, what we've been seeing lately—tail end of that five-game winning streak and all—isn't the Pacers. Their offense is worse, their defense is uncharacteristically permeable and the us-against-the-world edge is seemingly gone.
Things cannot stay this way. The Pacers could find themselves ousted from the playoffs well before meeting the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals if they do.
Think that isn't true? Think that's a gross overreaction? Ask yourself: Would the Pacers beat the Bulls like they're playing now? Would they even outlast the Brooklyn Nets in a seven-game series?
Maybe, maybe not.
There's a tendency to drum up situations such as these, making them into something they're not. Speaking in hyperbole amid losing streaks has become a cliche. But this is no ordinary losing streak for the perfection-obsessed Pacers.
Until now, Indiana lost back-to-back games once all year. Until now, the Pacers' longest losing streak spanned two games.
Do the Pacers have what it takes to secure the East's top seed?
Now, at their season's most crucial juncture, the Pacers are evoking doubt and creating conflict that wins over lesser opponents won't resolve.
"It's not something we want to go through, but I welcome a bit of adversity to motivate our guys," Vogel told FOX Sports Indiana on Sunday (via the Pacers on Twitter).
Only recently have the Pacers lacked motivation, and their ability to manufacture more and escape the complacency that's dogging them will say everything about whether their quest for No. 1 proves legitimate or prematurely ambitious.
*Stats courtesy of NBA.com (subscription required).