The Indiana Pacers put themselves on the chopping block. They asked for the weight of the basketball world to be placed on their shoulders and assured us all they were ready for the burden.
A transparent pursuit of the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed yielded an all-access view of Indiana's self-assessment. You don't gun for the top spot without a championship-or-bust mentality.
Contrary to certain NBA forecasts, the sky isn't falling in Indiana. Team president Larry Bird's betting chips are still out on the table, no closer to hitting big or busting than they were in October.
The public doesn't see it the same way. It would have folded weeks ago, and considering the evidence at hand—the Pacers are 11-14 over their last 25 games—it's hard to argue with the strategy.
But this team doesn't make it easy to abandon ship.
Even in mid-collapse, the Pacers scored victories over the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder. Tuesday night, Indiana went from dead in the water (down by double digits in the first half) to dominant (31-13 third-quarter advantage) in a badly needed, series-tying 101-85 win over the visiting Atlanta Hawks.
Indiana has shown a championship ceiling but also brought its fans uncomfortably close to rock bottom. Somehow, both extremes always stay within reach.
Those 12 minutes of brilliance captured Indiana at its finest. Defensively sound and offensively selfless, the Pacers packed a mean two-way punch they've used to knockout NBA heavyweights before.
"We put our print on this game in the third quarter, which we've done in November, December and January," Pacers swingman Paul George told reporters. "... I thought we did a great job of really just locking in, coming out in the second half, on what we need to do."
It was a win worth celebrating—and that's an issue in itself. The Pacers declared they were ready for the championship spotlight yet they're sweating bullets in dress rehearsals.
The versatile, pace-and-space Hawks aren't the best matchup for the plodding, inside-the-box Pacers. A little struggle on Indiana's end was to be expected.
Still, Atlanta is a 38-win team that didn't exactly aim for a playoff spot. Any systematic problems on Indiana's end should be corrected by the talent disparity weighing heavily in its favor.
Yet that's not the biggest concern here. Even when the outcome has been favorable, the path to that result has been anything but.
NBA.com's Lang Whitaker said he saw "signs that the Pacers still have plenty of things to fix" during Tuesday's win:
Like when Lance Stephenson was subbed out and he went and sulked in the corner.... Or when their All-Star center Roy Hibbert finished with six points and four rebounds playing mostly against a 31-year-old rookie."
Indiana has questions that need to be answered, but a team with title hopes shouldn't be searching for solutions in the opening round.
Splitting a two-game homestand with the Eastern Conference's No. 8 seed does nothing to build confidence. Any relief Tuesday's win could have delivered on its own may now be a casualty to the rumor mill that's pegged even more problems for the Pacers.
A team long believed to be tearing at the seams has apparently splintered even further. Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski painted a grisly scene from Indiana's playoff preparation practice last Friday:"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."
Is some practice-floor sparring all that surprising? Of course not. Tensions often run high inside NBA locker rooms, particularly one stuck in the nasty slide that's threatened to bury these championship hopefuls.
Are the names involved the least bit shocking? Not at all. Stephenson is a perpetual irritant. He was involved in a sideline spat with George Hill in March that also required teammate intervention, via ESPN's Brian Windhorst.
As for Turner, who landed in Indy at the trade deadline, he's still trying to find a niche in his new home. Not only is he battling Stephenson in practice, the two are competing for playing time—and possibly a roster spot. Both will become free agents at season's end, and the Pacers may not have the money (or desire) to pay both.
Perhaps that's why Wojnarowski reported this rift "had been weeks in the making" and that boiling bad blood "reflected in the ferocity of the encounter." Squabbles are unavoidable over an 82-game season, but ferociously butting heads one day before kicking off a playoff ride you expect to last until the championship round is a giant red flag.
Pacers players, for the record, have downplayed the situation's seriousness:
The altercation between Stephenson & Turner on Friday was nothing in the view of David West. "It's not uncommon, it wasn't even a fight."— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) April 23, 2014
Summary of #Pacers post-prax talk: Turner, Lance both say no punches thrown, others say no big deal.— Conrad Brunner (@1070Bruno) April 23, 2014
Not surprisingly, Wojnarowski's report isn't the only one signaling trouble in the organization.
ESPN's Marc Stein confirmed Stephenson's fight with Hill and also unmasked the short-fused guard as one of (or possibly the only) "selfish dudes" Roy Hibbert anonymously ripped late last month, via NBA.com's David Aldridge.
Stephenson scrapping with his teammates should raise as many eyebrows as former New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson's dismissal did. Anyone who's seen him play can understand how he might rub somebody (or somebodies) the wrong way.
"He over-dribbles, pursues flashy highlights at the expense of simpler plays, and is always stealing rebounds from his teammates — something that has been an internal irritant this season," Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote of Stephenson.
Annoyance, ideally, shouldn't derail Indy's postseason plans. If that's all it takes, there was never a true path to the podium in the first place.
Unfortunately, Stein dropped another bomb in his report.
Pacers coach Frank Vogel, sources told the ESPN scribe, is "coaching for his job." Even after leading the franchise to more wins than it had seen in a decade (56), the Eastern Conference All-Star coach could soon be looking for work if his players can't snap out of this funk.
That change won't happen in a single practice. It won't come over the course of a game or even a playoff series.
The Pacers, using the scale they chose, will be judged on their number of series victories. Four is the target, but three might be deemed as a passing grade. Anything less is a disappointment.
Vogel might not be able to afford a disappointment. Hibbert, who's been just as forgettable in these two games (7.0 points on 31.3 percent shooting, 6.0 rebounds) as he was down the stretch (8.9 points on 39.0 percent shooting, 4.7 rebounds after the All-Star break), needs to prove he's worth the money ($14.8 million for next season) or risk the Pacers searching for other options.
George must be a superstar every night. Hill needs to find something (scoring, defending, assisting) he can do consistently and stop getting lost in the shuffle. Stephenson must show he's worth the occasional headache, either to the Pacers or his next employer.
This postseason couldn't mean more to the people inside this organization. That's precisely how the Pacers said they wanted it.
Now, it's go-big, go-home or go-looking-for-work time. Using the scoring metric Indiana provided, the Pacers are worlds away from a reason to celebrate.