Months ago, it was entirely inconceivable that the Indiana Pacers could be struggling to beat the Al Horford-less Atlanta Hawks in a first-round series. They were title contenders, if not title favorites. They were defensive world-beaters, ones capable of actually shutting down the Miami Heat and stopping LeBron James in his three-peat tracks.
To be fair, though, "struggling" isn't exactly what's happening during this Eastern Conference battle between the No. 1 and No. 8 seeds.
The Pacers aren't just struggling to beat the Hawks; they're standing on the brink of a first-round exit, one that would cement their status as one of the most disappointing teams in recent memory. The fall from grace has been as quick as it's been unceremonious, with the Pacers taking only a few weeks to go from bona-fide-contender status to league-wide laughingstock.
There's still a chance the Pacers can bounce back from their opening-round struggles, but those chances are quickly declining, and the season is now on life support.
Even though the Pacers had been enduring a multi-month slump that exposed a number of deep-rooted issues, they were still entering the series as the odds-on favorite to beat the Hawks. Or at least it seemed that way.
Heading into the opening game of the first-round clash, I expected Atlanta to take care of some mismatches, escaping with a Game 1 victory that awoke the sleeping dragon within the Pacers. From that point forward, my thought was that Indiana would finally play inspired basketball and clean up the series in five or six games.
Picking ATL tonight, but expecting that to light a fire under IND, who'll quickly realize homecourt doesn't exist at Philips Arena.— Adam Fromal (@fromal09) April 19, 2014
Welp. So much for that.
Somewhat grudgingly, the Pacers have been forced to develop respect for their upstart opponent.
"We have great respect for this opponent. They're testing us, and we have to respond." - Frank Vogel— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) April 29, 2014
After all, here's how the opening-round matchup has progressed thus far (Pacers fans, shield your eyes):
A 3-2 deficit isn't exactly what the Pacers were hoping for heading into a Game 6 clash at Philips Arena. And some of those scores are misleading, as Atlanta has looked significantly better than its opponent for large stretches of certain victories, only to surrender leads in garbage time.
In order to advance, and thus to salvage the season, the Pacers have to win a road game on Thursday night and then travel back to Atlanta, holding onto home-court advantage to escape with a Game 7 victory.
At this point, that seems like an overly tall task.
The most glaring issue in the Pacers lineup has been Roy Hibbert, who can't grab a rebound or make a shot to save his life. After posting zeros in both the scoring and rebounding columns during 12 minutes of action in Game 5—he hasn't played in the fourth quarter since Game 1—the big man is having the single worst postseason of any All-Star in NBA history:
Roy Hibbert is having the worst postseason of any player named to an All-Star team earlier that year. pic.twitter.com/2OmEt7WSZM— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 29, 2014
That's obviously not a good thing, and the Pacers need to seriously consider benching him for the duration of Game 6, as I broke down earlier.
But Hibbert is by no means the only problem, and the Pacers' issues won't be magically solved if Luis Scola and a handful of smaller players eat into his already limited time on the court. With the exception of Paul George, who Bleacher Report's Dan Favale called the No. 5 performer of the postseason thus far, no one is really thriving during the series against Atlanta.
The Pacers are scarily unable to slow down the three-point assault of the Hawks, who boast a starting lineup in which every single player can knock down shots from beyond the arc. Pero Antic has been a matchup nightmare for the bigs, and no one seems to be able to stop Kyle Korver.
At this point, Korver has a pretty decent reputation as a marksman. I mean, he did make a triple in more consecutive contests than anyone in NBA history. So how exactly are the Pacers leaving him wide open at times?
And the Pacers leave Kyle Korver open... Are they drinking Hennessy at halftime like Metta World Peace?— Ben Leibowitz (@BenLebo) April 25, 2014
It just speaks to the incompetence of this current team, as it's experiencing defensive breakdowns with regularity. First it couldn't keep Jeff Teague out of the paint, then it adjusted and was susceptible to the three-ball more than ever before.
It’s not just the guys guarding the ball, it’s the guys off the ball. Everybody wasn’t engaged when the ball’s going away. A guy’s able to stand out there, get two shots up. We’re watching the guy who’s guarding him, saying, 'Hey, you do it.' But we play a five-man defense. Everybody’s responsible for the basketball when they’re on the floor.”
And defense has been the better side of the court.
At times, the Pacers look as though they have absolutely no ideas on the offensive end. They dribble the ball on the perimeter and move around in their own confined areas, waiting until the end of the shot clock to take a bad shot in isolation. The plays run seem few and far between, and the ones they actually use don't tend to work.
As Grant Hughes wrote for Bleacher Report after Chris Copeland and a small-ball lineup sparked a last-gasp effort in Game 5:
Top seeds aren't supposed to have to "find something" just to be competitive in a must-win game at home against a No. 8 seed. A gimmicky lineup that completely throws the team identity out the window is a desperate move that screams one thing, loud and clear: These Pacers don't know who they are anymore.
While the Indiana defense has given up 105.5 points per 100 possessions during the postseason, per Basketball-Reference, the offense has only been able to score 102.9 points over the same span. To put that in perspective, those numbers would leave them ranked No. 11 and No. 28, respectively, during the regular season.
Hibbert's struggles are obviously concerning, but they need to be secondary concerns to the overall schematic issues. Until the defense starts communicating and closing out, until the offense starts looking like, well, an offense, the Pacers are in big trouble.
After all, they have to do something they've had trouble with lately.
How Hard Is Winning Back-to-Back Games?
In order to advance to the next round of the playoffs and keep their tenuous playoff hopes alive, the Pacers have to win back-to-back games. They can't afford to drop either Game 6 or 7, as each one would allow the Hawks to complete the necessary quartet and eliminate the No. 1 seed.
Any guesses when the last time the Pacers won consecutive games was?
They did so to close the regular season, knocking off the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Orlando Magic to finish the campaign. Before that, you have to go back to the middle of March, when the Pacers reeled off a string of four games without dropping a single contest. And before that, there was a five-game stretch in late February.
But here's the thing about those streaks: Not one of them involved more than one playoff-caliber opponent. The Magic disqualify the most recent one, and the list of opponents for the other two combined streaks is entirely made up by the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz.
Even an All-Star team made up of the best players from those six teams might struggle to make the playoffs.
Kudos to the Pacers for holding serve against lottery-bound teams, but they still haven't managed to defeat consecutive opponents who are still alive in the chase for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. The last time that happened was in early February, when Indiana took down Atlanta and the Portland Trail Blazers in back-to-back fashion.
Now, all of a sudden, it has to replicate that feat.
It's possible, but it's certainly not probable.
All the Pacers have to do is get more players than George catching fire, figure out the Hibbert problem, start running plays on offense, begin functioning as a team again on defense and milk some sort of positive contributions from the bench.
Oh, and they have to slow down a confident Hawks team that genuinely believes it can take down its heavily favored opponents with its hot shooting and floor-spacing tendencies. When you're allowing Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack to explode on offense during a 40-point quarter, that's easier said than done.
Will the Pacers survive the first round?
"If the threat of being put out of these 2014 playoffs as soon as Thursday doesn’t grab the Pacers’ attention immediately, if the idea of playing all year for a home-court advantage they might squander in less than two weeks isn’t ominous enough," Asburner wrote after Game 5, "Then we might as well skip the smelling salts and go right to a mirror under their noses."
Good luck, Indiana. Smelling salts or not, you need it at this point.