This was supposed to be what the Indiana Pacers always wanted.
One successful South Beach stop could have righted so many of the wrongs Indiana has encountered since its blazing start seemed to burn all bridges to the NBA's championship stage.
Think Pacers coach Frank Vogel didn't appreciate the significance of Friday night's contest? You thought wrong.
"The magnitude we're going through now is definitely more than what I've ever gone through from a coaching standpoint," Vogel said before the game, via ESPN.com's Mike Wells.
The coach put every egg within reach into that 48-minute basket. He sat all five of his starters out of Wednesday's last-second win over the cellar-dwelling Milwaukee Bucks, a bold move that seemed to be packed with potential:
Roy Hibbert: "It’s always nice when you come down to nice warm weather. I was sprinting the court. I was like a gazelle."— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) April 10, 2014
"Served the purpose," Vogel said, via NBA.com's Steve Aschburner. "We got the starters the rest that hopefully will help them find their rhythm, and we let our bench guys get extended minutes so they could get comfortable."
Funny, considering the Pacers looked anything but comfortable inside the not-so-friendly confines of AmericanAirlines Arena.
Shell-shocked is more like it.
After 24 minutes of treading water—actually an upgrade over what the Pacers have been doing of late—it was sink-or-swim time after intermission. It wasn't long before Indy was left gasping for air.
A blistering 16-0 start to the second half by the two-time defending champion Miami Heat blew the doors off the Pacers. By the time the final buzzer mercifully brought Miami's 98-86 win to a close, everything was gone: the dashboard, the seats, even the passengers.
Yet, this wasn't so much a malfunctioning motor as it was Indy's self-destructing engine officially waving the white flag. The Pacers ate a knockout blow, and there's no indication this group has the energy, the heart or even the desire to pick itself off the canvas to fight another day.
If Friday's tilt was the proverbial fork in the road for these Eastern Conference giants, the Heat followed the breadcrumbs left from their last three NBA Finals run and steered toward a possible return trip. The Pacers didn't bother to turn—they went head-first into the guardrail.
"The Heat know where they want go and know how to get there," USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt wrote. "The Pacers know where they want to go but right now, they have no idea how to get there."
Perhaps Indy's path to prominence no longer exists. Maybe their road map was lost during their unnerving series of in-house fights.
Did center Roy Hibbert's dubbing of his teammates as "some selfish dudes," via NBA.com's David Aldridge, derail this season? Was the sideline spat between guards George Hill and Lance Stephenson, as reported by ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, the last self-inflicted wound the Pacers could stand to take?
"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.
Different theories exist as to when, where and why it all went wrong for a team that looked like the NBA's best through the early portion of the 2013-14 campaign.
Blame has rained down on the shoulders of team president Larry Bird for the midseason swap that sent former face-of-the-franchise Danny Granger packing at the trade deadline. If losing a part-time player—who, let's not forget, was playing some of the worst basketball of his career (8.3 points on 35.9 percent shooting)—really fractured the foundation, it wasn't strong enough for postseason play to begin with.
What about those "selfish dudes" Hibbert put in his crosshairs? Clearly, Paul George's early season anointing as NBA elite was premature (he's averaging 20.8 points on 39.7 percent shooting since the All-Star break). But who can blame a team for not running an offense through a 7'2" center who doesn't score efficiently (Hibbert's shooting 41.2 percent since the break) or even bother to hit the glass (2.9 rebounds a night over his last 10 games)?
The Pacers are built to win with defense, a hard enough venture in today's hand-check-free NBA. Great defense, though, requires tight-knit chemistry. When's the last time this team looked remotely cohesive?
You can search for a breaking point, but it doesn't exist. Cracks have formed in every corner of the organization.
Blame the revamped second-team that doesn't look any better than the group it replaced (25.9 bench points per game, 28th in the league, via HoopsStats.com). Or the point guard, Hill, who cannot create for himself (zero field-goal attempts in 32-plus minutes Friday) or his teammates (3.5 assists per game). Blame the bigs for not rebounding (Stephenson leads the regulars with 7.1 per night), the wings for forcing threes (no starter shoots even 37 percent from distance), or the coach who's seen it all unravel under his watch.
Don't point one finger, point every one you have. Throw a couple toes in if you have to.
"There's sloppiness and poor execution everywhere, and repeated little failures act like wet sand pouring into a bag, dragging the whole operation downward and making everyone surly along the way," Windhorst wrote.
Are the Pacers just gassed?
Vogel has leaned heavily on his core players, potentially to a problematic extent.
"Through Sunday night’s game, Roy Hibbert’s 2,331 minutes was the fewest of the five starters," Tim Donahue of 8Points9Seconds.com noted. "Only 60 players across the Association have played more minutes, including all four of his fellow starters. That puts each member of The Five at the 88th percentile or above in minutes played."
It's also important to remember what type of playing time we're talking about:
@TimDonahue8p9s And the Pacers' style sort of ensures that those are "hard" minutes (Bulls too).— Seth Partnow (@WhrOffnsHppns) April 8, 2014
Is it just me, though, or does that excuse run a little thin? Should we be that worried about professional athletes running out of fuel? That's a one hard to stomach, particularly when you consider the Pacers don't have the added playoff mileage that a team like Miami does.
It's not as if Vogel can go back and erase those minutes. That damage—if that's what you want to call it—is done.
That, like so many elements of this tragic tale, is nothing more than an excuse at this point, and a hollow one at that.
The Pacers (8-13 in their last 21 games) don't have time for excuses. Ditto for ball-stopping offense, shoddy rebounding or the blame game.
Indiana wanted control of its own destiny and, up until Friday night, it had just that. Maybe life atop the basketball world isn't as sweet as the Pacers had envisioned.
There are problems that need fixing and time that's wasting by the day. Playoff basketball is almost here. The Pacers have to seize this opportunity.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.