The Indiana Pacers are wobbling, but for now they're still standing.
The undermanned Atlanta Hawks are light on knockout artists, but it might not take much to send Indiana spiraling to a historic collapse.
Pacers basketball, by its nature, isn't pretty.
They bang and bruise until an opponent begs for mercy. They swarm on defense, funneling attacks right into impenetrable walls.
That's the good kind of Pacers hoops, at least. What the Eastern Conference's top seed has shown over its first four playoff games hasn't been pretty, but it's ugly for all the wrong reasons.
Saturday's nail-biting 91-88 win to even the series with the Atlanta Hawks won't change that. The spotlight still seems too bright for a team that claimed to want it throughout the campaign.
Indiana had chances to close the door. Eventually, the Pacers got it shut, but not before slamming it on their fingers a few times:
First David West and now Paul George. Pacers have missed their last four free throws. Hawks with a chance, down three with 7.5secs— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) April 26, 2014
Over the final 90 seconds of regulation, the Pacers fouled Kyle Korver on a missed three, committed a lane violation when he missed the third free throw, missed a three (Lance Stephenson), made a layup (George Hill), turned it over (Stephenson), missed two free throws (Paul George) and allowed Pero Antic to get a wide-open look at a potential game-tying triple.
Indiana won, but it certainly didn't impress.
Maybe style points shouldn't matter. Maybe they only mean something to teams looking for some extra fuel to spark a championship run.
The Pacers can't afford to look that far ahead—not when a historic collapse remains an all-too-real possibility.
History has shown us that top seeds are not invincible. They are, however, closer to that untouchable status in the NBA than anywhere else across the sports world.
"Top NBA seeds fall in the first round only 8% of the time," USA Today's Erik Brady noted. "That compares to 26% in the NHL, 27% in the NFL (after Round 1 byes) and 37% in MLB."
Since the league expanded its playoff field to 16 teams in 1984, NBA No. 1 seeds are 55-5 in the opening round. Somehow, that number actually sells these basketball giants a bit short.
Two of the five upsets (or collapses) came after lockout-shortened seasons. The New York Knicks dispatched the Miami Heat after the 50-game 1998-99 campaign, and the Philadelphia 76ers stunned the Chicago Bulls following the 2011-12 66-game season.
The Knicks weren't a typical eighth seed. They made a second-round appearance the previous season, then bolstered their ranks by trading for Marcus Camby and Latrell Sprewell. Forced to find a rhythm on the fly, New York scraped its way to 27 wins—just six fewer than Miami. After handling the Heat, the Knicks rolled all the way to the NBA Finals before the San Antonio Spurs finally stopped their dream run.
The talent gap was much wider when the Bulls and Sixers locked horns in 2012. Chicago had 15 more wins than Philly and, based on winning percentages, would have wound up 19 ahead in a normal 82-game season.
Yet, those on-paper advantages—along with Chicago's spirit—were lost when former MVP Derrick Rose suffered a torn ACL in the closing minutes of the series opener. The Sixers won the following three games and closed out the series in six.
As for the other three upsets, those aren't nearly as easy to explain.
The disparity between those three Davids and Goliaths was close to what this series has been.
A 21-game gap sat between the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics and the eighth-seeded Denver Nuggets in 1994. The division was even wider between the 67-win Dallas Mavericks and 42-win Golden State Warriors in 2007. The Pacers had 18 more wins than the Hawks this season, close to the 15-game chasm between the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies in 2011.
Dan Issel's Nuggets were the first No. 8 seed to take a series with their shocking upset of the Sonics. Shocking is putting it lightly. George Karl's group had top-shelf talent (Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Detlef Schrempf), experience—and a 2-0 series lead after consecutive double-digit wins.
The Nuggets had heart, though, plus young athleticism, a supreme rim-protector (Dikembe Mutombo averaged 6.2 blocks per game in the series) and unwavering confidence. After picking up two wins on their home floor, the Nuggets had the Sonics sweating.
"I can't deny, the butterflies felt like rocks," Karl said later, via Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post.
Seattle wilted under the pressure, Robert Pack pumped in 23 points off the bench and Denver squeaked out a series-stealing 98-94 overtime win.
Taking three of five is different from stealing four of seven, though. For true seven-game upsets, we've seen one common thread: series-changing mismatches. (Sound familiar, Pacers fans?)
Don Nelson's Warriors spread the floor with shooters at one end and harassed Dirk Nowitzki with smaller, physical defenders at the opposite side. Nowitzki, the MVP winner of the same season, was rendered useless, shooting just 38.3 percent from the field and 21.1 percent from distance for the series.
Dallas couldn't compensate for the shortcomings of its leader, and Golden State stormed to a six-game series win. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban alleged Nelson, a former Dallas coach, used "confidential information" to pull off the upset, per Stephen Hawkins of The Associated Press (via The Washington Post).
In 2011, the Grizzlies went bigger than the Spurs could go. Zach Randolph (21.5 points on 50.0 percent shooting, 9.2 rebounds) and Marc Gasol (14.2 points on 53.3 percent shooting, 12.3 rebounds) got anything and everything they wanted throughout the series.
"From a pick-me-up perspective, we just got on his back, and we rode him like he was an English warhorse," then-Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said of Randolph, per the AP (via ESPN.com). "He was really carrying us, we were just hanging on."
Is a bad matchup a convenient excuse? Did teams like the Warriors and Grizzlies rise to the occasion, or did the Mavs and Spurs give them a door to walk through?
More importantly, what are the Pacers doing? Is Atlanta better than advertised, or is Indiana's train wreck a historic catastrophe?
Hawks Have Talent
The Hawks expected to be here, not just in a first-round matchup but in position to win it.
"I said it before, we had a lot of injuries this year so we're not your normal eight seed," Hawks forward DeMarre Carroll said, via John Manasso of Fox Sports South. "Teams keep thinking we're a normal 8-seed, we're going to keep proving that we're not your normal 8-seed. We're healthy."
Well, they're as healthy as they can be. All-Star center Al Horford has been out since December (torn pectoral) and won't make his next appearance before the 2014-15 season.
Beyond the big man, though, this team is largely free of the medical concerns that have surrounded it all season. Two of Mike Budenholzer's rotation players saw action in at least 75 games this season—seven different Pacers made 76 appearances or more.
At full strength, the Hawks can give teams headaches, particularly a plodding group such as the Pacers.
Jeff Teague's quickness has proven problematic for George Hill. Saturday's 14-point performance followed Teague's 22-point effort in Atlanta's Game 3 win. Millsap is a hustler with more skill than the label implies. He's been a force all series and ripped the Pacers for a game-high 29 in Game 4.
Tough covers abound in this versatile group, from the playmaking wings down to the 31-year-old rookie stretch center capable of pulling Roy Hibbert well outside his comfort zone:
The Hawks' Center, Pero Antic who loves to shoot 3s is a matchup problem for the Pacers and Roy Hibbert... pic.twitter.com/MxEWHHZBoB— Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) April 26, 2014
Indiana's skid has dominated headlines for a reason. Elite teams don't become this fragile this quickly.
But Atlanta deserves some pub for seizing the opportunities it's been given:
At some point does this become a bit less about the Pacers and bit more about the Hawks?— Lang Whitaker (@langwhitaker) April 26, 2014
The Hawks haven't even put their best foot forward.
Atlanta shot just 35.7 percent from the field Saturday. It's shooting 39.1 percent for the series, the only team with a playoff field-goal percentage under 41 percent.
The Hawks held the Pacers to 13 second-quarter points, but gave back whatever they had gotten with a 17-point dud after intermission. Atlanta is trying to feast off the long ball (124 three-point attempts), but it's converting just 35.5 percent of its attempts.
This team has traded two wins apiece with the conference's best, and it has another gear (or two) it has yet to reach.
The Hawks are better than we thought, and this matchup makes them an even stronger team.
But if Indiana can't right the ship, this will be a collapse for the history books. The Pacers have more than enough talent to compensate for those mismatches—as long as they let themselves.
Pacers Have Issues
Indiana hasn't mistaken the magnitude of this moment. This group appreciates exactly what's at stake:
#Pacers F David West on the 4th Q: "Our season was on the line."— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) April 26, 2014
Honestly, that's terrifying.
A wavering focus would be so much easier to explain whatever it is that keeps plaguing the Pacers:
Can't wait to find out what has torn this Pacers locker room apart. It better be worth all this terrible play.— Tas Melas (@TasMelas) April 25, 2014
There's no sense of urgency, none with the right mindset at least. Everyone wants to be the hero, and no one wants to blame the goat.
"I have confidence in Roy Hibbert," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said after Game 3, via Pacers.com's Mark Montieth. "He hasn't played well in this series to this point, but I have great confidence in him.”
Hibbert rewarded that confidence with a six-point, three-rebound performance in 25 minutes Saturday.
George grabbed the offensive reins (24 points on 10-of-18 shooting), then fired blanks with two chances to close the game at the charity stripe. West supposedly understood the importance of a strong finish, but he's the one who hacked Korver on a three. Stephenson struggled with his shot (2-of-9 from the floor, 1-of-7 from distance) and let his frustration boil over in a bad way:
Stephenson better be careful...pretty animated after 2nd foul, As I typed that he gets a technical foul...that kind of nonsense is costly.— Jeremiah Johnson (@JJFSINDIANA) April 26, 2014
Even in a win, the Pacers looked rattled—the same way they've appeared for months (12-14 since March 4).
History says Indiana's No. 1 seed should be enough to avoid a colossal collapse. But it also warns about the pitfalls surrounding problematic matchups such as the one the Pacers have encountered.
Vogel's guys now have a three-game battle on their hands—assuming, of course, they actually have an interest in fighting something other than each other.