It took a 16-4 run in the waning minutes of Game 6 for the Indiana Pacers to force a Game 7 against the Atlanta Hawks. For anyone who followed the Pacers' electric start to the season, it's shocking that it's come to this—a lone, final decisive game to determine who advances to the conference semifinals.
Forward David West expressed optimism about what lies ahead.
David West: "We played all yr for this to get Game 7s in our building. The energy’s going 2 be great. We just have 2 take care of business."— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) May 2, 2014
Correction: The Pacers played all year precisely to avoid facing a Game 7 in the first round. Squaring off with a foe as diminutive as the Hawks was supposed to be its own reward. This was supposed to a shorter series.
For anyone who's paid any attention to the Pacers' late-season struggles, this is anything but a surprise. The Hawks have been fine. They've done their job. But this story is all about the demise of the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed. It's all about an identity crisis that's plagued Indiana and threatened to derail what once seemed to be very legitimate title hopes.
And no, it's not all about Roy Hibbert.
The 27-year-old center has been an epic disappointment to be sure. He hasn't scored in his last two games. That's the first time an All-Star has put up consecutive zeroes in the playoffs since Jim King did it in 1968.
Hibbert played just 24 minutes combined in those two games, racking up eight fouls and little of any statistical value. For the series, he's averaging just four points and 3.2 rebounds through six games.
According to The Washington Post's Jeffrey Tomik, ESPN's Stephen A. Smith has gone so far as to recommend psychiatric help: "Roy Hibbert has to go see a psychologist. Something happened to him. He is 7'2," doesn’t score a point, doesn’t grab a rebound. It makes no sense. I can’t explain it."
After Game 3, West said this of Hibbert according to the Associated Press (via USA Today): "We've all tried to talk to him, keep him confident, you know. But he's hurting. He wants to help us. He wants to play well. He's hard on himself. But we've got to figure a way to get him involved. He's got to figure a way to get himself involved."
It's all too easy to pile on to Hibbert at this point, and that's probably the last thing he needs or deserves. Indiana's problems predated his downturn, and they go much deeper.
Even as the Pacers struggled through an 8-10 March, Hibbert continued to averaged 9.7 points in 29.4 minutes per contest. Those numbers were off when compared to earlier in the season, but so was other Pacers' production.
During that same March stretch, Paul George made just 37 percent of his field-goal attempts. That was way down from his 47 percent mark in November and December.
Something is wrong with Hibbert, yes. But something's been wrong with the Pacers at large for some time now.
The most obvious culprit is the trade that sent Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for swingman Evan Turner. It's obvious for a couple of reasons.
The first is timing. Granger was sent packing in February before the trade deadline. Indiana's struggles began in earnest soon after.
The second is that this clearly has more to do with psychology than it does X's and O's. Granger wasn't a significant contributor any longer, but he was the longest-standing Pacer, the locker room's heart and soul. His departure was an instant source of sadness and confusion in the locker room.
Nothing's changed in terms of game plans. Nothing significant has changed in terms of personnel. On paper, the Pacers should be every bit as good as they were to start the season. That's the biggest giveaway that what ails them can't easily be represented on paper.
The other giveaway is the obvious frustration that's mounted over the course of the last several months. That frustration hit a boiling point in April when Lance Stephenson and Turner clashed during practice in advance of the team's first-round series.
ESPN.com's Marc Stein offers details:
Lance Stephenson acknowledged Wednesday that he and Turner got into a practice "scuffle" last week before Game 1 against Atlanta but denied the two threw any punches. Vogel and Indiana's players concurred with Stephenson's version of events, though the descriptions were different. Yahoo! Sports first reported that Turner had to be "dragged out of practice" last week after the argument and that fists were flying. Turner denied that, saying simply that they got tangled up but that there was no fight. Vogel and All-Star center Roy Hibbert said every team has similar scrapes during practice but neither considered it a fight.
This wasn't the first strike against Stephenson, either. Per Stein, "Sources said that Stephenson and guard George Hill had to be separated on the bench during a 26-point home loss to San Antonio on March 31."
Much as we might like to blame Hibbert for his uninspired performances of late, it would be a mistake to overlook the disruption Stephenson's brought to the locker room. Based on his on-court play, the 23-year-old is much-improved. He raised his scoring average five points from a season ago and averaged 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists to boot. There's no denying Stephenson's talent.
But his effect on the rest of the Pacers is another story entirely. The last thing they need is distractions, especially in the midst of a slide that drew plenty of media attention.
Speaking of distractions, it probably doesn't help that the organization's confidence in head coach Frank Vogel has reportedly waned of late.
Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard sought to dispel any such notion.
Larry Bird just told me his sources say Frank Vogel's job is safe. @Pacers— Kevin Pritchard (@PacersKev) April 24, 2014
But ESPN.com's Marc Stein suggested otherwise, writing:
Whether Vogel would still be "safe" if the Pacers lose this series to the Hawks or fail to at least get back to the conference finals remains to be seen. Sources told ESPN.com this week that coming back to win this first-round series -- with Games 3 and 4 looming in Atlanta -- would not ensure Vogel's return next season.
That's a little tough to swallow in the context of a coach who's made this team a would-be contender. The Pacers have battled the Miami Heat well—including in the postseason—and maintained their status as the East's No. 1 seed despite the late-season collapse.
According to Stein, "The decision on whether to retain Vogel at season's end ultimately rests with Bird, but sources insist that frustration throughout the organization has been mounting."
Vogel's vulnerability is the last story these Pacers needed as they try to get their act together. They've already seen Granger dismissed. Now there's a chance the same fate awaits Vogel? The team's collective consciousness has to be wondering who's next.
Yes, this is a business. But even businesses are susceptible to nervous breakdowns. At a time like this, the organization should probably be expressing confidence in its product. Privately, it appears to be espousing something else entirely.
The Pacers' problems don't have easy explanations. That's precisely why we shouldn't rush to pin this on Hibbert. There's plenty of collective blame to go around, plenty of alternative explanations. Some of them might even have a little something to do with what's troubling Roy Hibbert.