The Indiana Pacers have officially come crashing back down to earth, even as they somehow remain far atop an Eastern Conference in which the Miami Heat rank as their only real competition in the standings.
Whether it's time to sound any alarms really just depends on one's threshold for panic. Either way, facts are speaking for themselves in the worst possible way. Indiana has lost seven of its last 12 games, pining for a return to form when it should be peaking in anticipation of the postseason.
To be sure, there are a couple of factors that are almost certainly impacting the club's psychology. The Pacers miss Danny Granger—literally. It's not so much about his play on the floor, which was limited and uneven. It's about his presence in the locker room, his legacy as the guy who helped turn this franchise around.
Even more concretely, the struggling Paul George has to be distracted by nude photographs that were exposed against his will. Contrary to initial claims that he'd been "catfished" by a man posing as a female, George says he knows "who's behind it," according to USA Today's Candace Buckner.
George has been saying all the right things, suggesting that his play hasn't been affected—but his play on the court tells a different story. He's made less than 38 percent of his field-goal attempts in March, a period in which his scoring has plummeted three points below his season average.
But the Pacers' problems go beyond George. Besides the unwanted eyes on him, all eyes are on the Pacers.
And they aren't especially used to that.
ESPN's Brian Windhorst contends that "life as the hunted has not agreed with them"—charting a narrative in which Indiana's place atop the East has put a target on its back. He cites comments made earlier this season by head coach Frank Vogel: "These teams are coming at us with great force regardless of their record. These teams are playing above themselves against us."
Team president Larry Bird said he was "disappointed" this March, telling the Indy Star's Bob Kravitz, "A lot of times, we don't take the fight to them (the opponent). A lot of times we sit back and wait and see how it goes.''
That's consistent with a belief that whatever's going on is to a large degree mental. The talent is there, and you'd be hard-pressed to argue this team lacks heart. The question is what to make of their collective "head."
At its core, this is still a very young team. Its leading scorer, George, is still just 23. Key pieces like Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson are 27 and 23, respectively. Hometown favorite George Hill is 27.
The closest thing Indiana has to a gritty veteran is 33-year-old David West, a player who's been around the block enough to earn significant capital with his teammates. But his explanation of the club's woes hardly sheds light on what's become painfully obvious (per USA Today's Candace Buckner):
We look like (expletive). They're good defensive teams, but we're just playing a bad, bad brand of basketball and it's not very fun to be a part of when we're losing. When you go back and watch the games, it just doesn't look good... And everybody's got to sort of look at themselves and see what we can do because I think we've done enough talking.
Talking to the media is one thing. But are the Pacers talking to the right people and—namely—each other?
NBA.com's Sekou Smith noted what he described as a "lost edge" earlier in March, arguing that the Pacers "have to return to the identity that led them to the top of the standings." That would mean their current predicament is something of an identity crisis, which sounds about right.
Is this unit really a contender in the same class as the Miami Heat? Can it withstand the pressure of winning the games it's "supposed" to win, or was it better off as an upstart built to upset?
It's harder to have a chip on your shoulder when you're actually getting respect. If it was that chip fueling Indiana's early-season exploits, head coach Frank Vogel will have to find a new source of inspiration to motivate his players over the course of the season's final stretch.
Pride will only go so far, especially when it's already been wounded so severely.
Indiana's best hope may be getting by for the next few weeks and regrouping when the do-or-die postseason rolls around. That may be all the motivation this team needs.
Otherwise, it may be too late.