Can the Indiana Pacers Solve Their Chemistry Crisis and Save Their Season?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 23, 2014

Order was briefly restored to the Indiana Pacers following their Game 2 victory over the Atlanta Hawks Tuesday night. For a few glorious and essential moments, a decaying powerhouse seeking refuge from self-furnished chaos found sanctuary in winning.

Temporary sanctuary.

When the final buzzer sounded, little changed. The Pacers were awarded a much-needed win, and this first-round series—once considered a formality for Indy—was knotted up at one game apiece. That's it.

Beyond this one win, the Pacers still face the same problems. Their season is in shambles, their chemistry is waning and their title hopes are dwindling. And while they would love to believe this single victory is the antidote that will purge their well of all poison, we know better.

One win doesn't solve or prove anything. It may not even treat their growing list of symptoms, let alone act as a cure-all.

Questions still abound, problems still exist. The Pacers are still up against themselves, trying to salvage a deteriorating season that was never supposed to need saving.


Drama, Drama, Drama

Not even a simple, badly needed win could come without theatrics.

Soon after the Pacers took Game 2, Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski revealed that team turmoil took a violent turn between Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner before the playoffs began:

On the eve of this Eastern Conference series, the wobbling No. 1 seed punctuated its final playoff preparations in a most self-destructive way: Two Indiana Pacers dragged a cursing, cut Evan Turner out of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court, untangling him from a practice-floor fistfight with teammate Lance Stephenson.

Turner hadn't been the first Pacer to lose his temper with Stephenson these tumultuous several weeks, and Stephenson's relentlessly irritable nature suggests Turner won't be the last. These scrapes aren't uncommon in the NBA, but this confrontation had been weeks in the making and that reflected in the ferocity of the encounter, sources told Yahoo Sports.

This in-lap-of-gods relationship between Turner and Stephenson has been problematic for some time. Turner's arrival sparked a contract battle, according to Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher. Both players will enter free agency after this season, and it's believed that the Pacers want—and can only afford—to keep one.

"This stuff happens, but the timing wasn't ideal," one witness told Woj of the two-man brawl.

Creating this in-house competition halfway through a promising regular season wasn't ideal either. Long a proponent of hard work and stability, team president Larry Bird fueled an unnecessary and unpredictable fire by trading Danny Granger. Though the recently injury-prone Granger wasn't producing at his previous All-Star level, chemistry has been paramount to the team's success.

There was no foreseeing how the Pacers would respond to Granger's departure, no predicting how Stephenson and Turner, two youngsters with self-serving agendas barreling toward a summer of uncertainty, would fare alongside one another. 

Less than a month before, Bird took an equally unhealthy gamble by signing oft-embattled center Andrew Bynum to bolster Indy's depth. Bynum has been a non-factor on the court, appearing in only two games since his arrival.

But it's the actual moves—bringing in Turner and signing Bynum—that have mattered more than anything else. Tinkering with a battle-tested formula isn't smart practice. When Turner arrived, the Pacers were already 41-13. What was he realistically going to do for them? There was nowhere to go but down.

And down they've gone, plummeting to a level so far beneath their early-season performance, it's almost unbelievable. 

Only almost.


And More Drama

Rumor after rumor after rumor has sullied a previously splendid team dynamic.

In addition to the Stephenson-Turner scuffle, ESPN's Marc Stein brings word that the former also had to be separated from George Hill while on the bench during a March loss to the San Antonio Spurs. A few days after that, Hibbert called out his teammates for playing me-first basketball.

"Some selfish dudes in here," he said, per's David Aldridge. "Some selfish dudes. I'm tired of talking about it. We've been talking about it for a month."

Selfish dude, really. 

Sources told Stein that Hibbert was "essentially referring to Stephenson" when he dropped that bomb. To top it all off, Stein also writes that head coach Frank Vogel is now fighting for his job:

Sources close to the situation told that Vogel, despite a 56-win season that secured the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, is "coaching for his job" in the wake of a prolonged slide that has stretched into its third month.

Following Indiana's 101-85 triumph over Atlanta in Game 2 of the teams' first-round playoff series, sources told that coming back to win the series against the Hawks would not automatically ensure Vogel's safety.

This comes a little more than a month after Bird questioned Vogel's coaching policies while speaking with The Indianapolis Star's Bob Kravitz. He portrayed Vogel as something of a laissez-faire coach, who wasn't disciplining players enough.

So, yeah, that's the situation in Indiana right now. We could go on for days listing the obstacles they have laid before themselves. But we don't have that kind of time. And neither do the Pacers. Their laundry list of issues has grown exponentially, to the point where a series victory, let alone a single win, proves nothing.


Unconvincing Win?

About that single win...

No use ignoring the obvious: The Pacers played better in Game 2 than they did in Game 1, which is to say many of them weren't tripping over their own feet while caroming shots off every part of the rim.

Jeff Teague was kept in check for most of the game. He went 6-of-13 from the floor and attempted just two free throws, finishing with a relatively quiet 14 points and four assists. Mismatches weren't created as easily for him. The Pacers did a nice job fighting over screens and cutting off his path to the basket, contesting and challenging many of his looks.

Ball movement increased tenfold as well. Twenty-five assists were handed out on 36 made field goals in an uncharacteristically selfless offensive display. David West was a playmaking windfall. Aside from dropping six dimes, he did a nice job setting screens and jump-starting offensive sets from the block. 

Paul George also started making shots, torpedoing Atlanta's perimeter defense, drilling five of his seven three-point attempts. He, too, was a boon for the Pacers' playmaking, constantly feeding teammates, always ensuring the ball never stayed in one place for long.

Yet for all the Pacers did right, so many issues still lingered. Their first-half performance was plagued by the same disjointed effort that's dogged them for months. Luis Scola, West and George were sensational, but the team once again struggled against Atlanta's smaller lineups and consistently failed to close out on shooters.

If not for an out-of-this-world performance in the third quarter—aided by the Hawks' inability to hit just about anything—that saw Atlanta score only 13 points and the Pacers catch fire on offense (12-of-16 shooting), we could be lamenting a Game 2 loss.

Hibbert didn't reclaim his good name in any way, remaining lost on both ends of the floor, playing the type of game that led Eye on Basketball's Zach Harper to wonder if he can even be useful anymore:

In this series against a Hawks team hell-bent on making things weird out there, it's possible Hibbert simply doesn't belong on the court for extended minutes. And this doesn't even necessarily have to serve as an indictment on Hibbert and his game. He certainly needs to play better in the postseason for the Pacers to be title contenders like they were aiming to be for months.


Fast-forward to an Eastern Conference finals appearance and he'll be needed to punish the Miami Heat for going small. But his specialty is exploited quite easily against the perimeter-fixated Hawks. At a certain point, the price tag of Hibbert becomes irrelevant because it cannot change. People will focus on him being a max contract, but really the only thing that matters is whether or not he can fill his role when called upon.

Perhaps Frank Vogel simply shouldn't call on Hibbert so much until the next round, assuming the Pacers move on.

This all factors into chemistry. That the Pacers may be better off without Hibbert, even if only against Atlanta, is a problem they can neither ignore nor escape. Winning one game in spite of Hibbert playing more clumsy basketball—and Stephenson being held in check and Turner being irrelevant—doesn't induce confidence or establish continuity.

Scola won't save the Pacers every night. There's no promise one offensively sound game will get George going. Past contests suggest the ball will inevitably stop moving again.

One win—one shaky, uneven win—doesn't put the Pacers back in a position of power or mean they're on the same page. 

Not yet.


Choppy Roads Ahead

"We've been on the ropes a little bit," West told Wojnarowski of the Pacers after Game 2. 

They still are.

Make no mistake, Game 2 was a step in the right direction, a long overdue win needed to break the pattern of losing and dysfunction. But it was one win, and there are mountains of conflicts the Pacers must still work through.

Off and on the court, the Pacers' chemistry isn't where it needs to be. Hibbert shouldn't be a stumbling, bumbling mess at this point of the season. Vogel's job security shouldn't be an issue after finishing atop the Eastern Conference. George's Game 2 performance shouldn't be met with a sigh of relief and hints of skepticism.

We shouldn't still be wondering how this first-round series will turn out, how soon the Pacers' season will end. But we are. And it takes time for that to change—more than one game—a point Grantland's Zach Lowe drives home:

That’s adaptation. Little-guy lineups can work against Atlanta, which is a small team on the wing with zero post-up threats there. The Heat are a different story, with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade capable of bullying on the block. That’s the team Indiana is built to face. They have to get there first, and Game 2 was one of just three or four games the Pacers have played since February 1 that made you believe we might really get Heat-Pacers in late May.

Will the Pacers recapture their once-lauded, seemingly irrevocable chemistry in time to make this season worthwhile and render their atlas of division, disharmony and distrust but a footnote?

The answer lies in another question.

What is it the Pacers are looking to do?

Win the Eastern Conference. Nothing less.

Less than one year ago, they came within one game of the NBA Finals. Expectations haven't changed just because the Pacers have. Short of duplicating last spring's postseason push, they'll have failed.

"I was dialed in," George said after Game 2, per The Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner.

For part of one night, so were many other Pacers. For part of one night, they looked like a team prepared to meet expectations. But one night doesn't erase months of wrong, and it doesn't bring the Pacers any closer to reaching a championship ceiling that ebbing chemistry drove out of reach, beyond rescue, long before now. 



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