With a vulnerability on display unlike anything they've shown all season, the Indiana Pacers should be on a rush to arms. But instead, they're at each other's throats.
In Monday's 103-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs—Indiana's fifth loss in its last six games—Pacers guards George Hill and Lance Stephenson reportedly exchanged verbal barbs in a sideline confrontation so heated it required teammate intervention, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst (h/t Conrad Brunner of 1070 The Fan):
@WindhorstESPN reports GHill and Lance traded words and had to be separated by teammates during huddle in 2nd half.— Conrad Brunner (@1070Bruno) April 1, 2014
"The Pacers are experiencing a leadership void at the moment and the only thing they're racking up faster than turnovers and bad shots is finger pointing," Windhorst wrote. "During a timeout in the second half, George Hill got into a verbal confrontation with Lance Stephenson on the bench and they had to be separated by teammates."
Hill and Stephenson, according to Scott Agness of Pacers.com, have butted heads before:
Looked back at the tape for a Hill/Stephenson feud. Broadcast didn't catch it, but it's not the 1st time those two have had to be separated.— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) April 1, 2014
The Pacers have problems, and this is just another sign of how much damage has been done to a franchise that once looked as tight-knit as any in the league.
Offensively, this unit is falling apart at the already tattered seams. The Pacers have shot below 40 percent in each of the last six games, only once topping the 80-point mark in that stretch.
At least the big man was a bit more gentle with his criticisms this time around. Between the reported sideline spat and loss of Eastern Conference control—the Miami Heat took over the No. 1 seed with a winning percentage (.699) slightly above the Pacers (.693)—maybe Hibbert didn't feel like piling on.
Just last week, the two-time All-Star had no problem doing some of the splintering himself.
"Some selfish dudes in here," Hibbert said following the team's 91-78 loss to the Washington Wizards Friday night, via NBA.com's David Aldridge. "Some selfish dudes. I'm tired of talking about it. We've been talking about it for a month."
Pacers team president Larry Bird is looking more like an unfortunate prophet these days. The executive had raised his caution flag long before the rest of the hoops world was ready to hit the panic button.
"One thing I'd be nervous about is pointing fingers," Bird said in March while his team was in the early stages of its second-half swoon, via Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star. "'Well, so-and-so isn't doing this or that.' I haven't seen that, yet, but that's a sure sign you've got a problem."
Frankly, it seems like the Pacers are lucky that fingers are the only things flying around. For a team that prides itself on toughness, a physical altercation could have devastating effects.
Even short of that disaster scenario, things aren't so hot in the Circle City. The offense has lost what little punch it had, and the margin for error wasn't great to begin with.
Talent-wise, the Pacers have the pieces to make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals—or beyond. But there are problems that need correcting before the start of the postseason.
If these on-court issues make further inroads inside the team's locker room, Indiana's playoff run could be finished before it ever gets started.