INDIANAPOLIS—They churned through an awkward blend of emotions Saturday: anxiety and desperation, bravado laced with uncertainty, and a final burst of joy that felt more like merciful relief. But all Roy Hibbert could feel was anger.
The Indiana Pacers had rolled to a series-clinching, face-saving, Game 7 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, with Hibbert providing the passion and the force they so badly needed and had so sorely missed. Thirteen points. Seven rebounds. Five blocks.
After all he had endured these last two weeks—the empty box scores, the benchings, the mockery—Hibbert had earned the right to exhale, to smile. He would have none of it.
“I was angry,” Hibbert, still brooding, still simmering, said after the 92-80 victory. “I wanted to win this game.”
This was not an anger born of his own struggles, Hibbert said, or even of the stunning predicament that the top-seeded Pacers faced in being extended to seven games by an undersized, undertalented eighth seed.
It was, of course, born of all of that.
The Pacers won 56 games this season, the best mark in the Eastern Conference, with an MVP darkhorse (Paul George), a Most Improved Player candidate (Lance Stephenson) and a potential Defensive Player of the Year (Hibbert). They were widely viewed as a title contender, the greatest threat to the Miami Heat’s reign in the East.
Yet there they were last week, staring at a 3-2 series deficit and a potentially historic humiliation—the first No. 1 seed to fall to a losing team.
That the Pacers staved off elimination twice and pushed through to the second round should provide comfort to no one.
“Still a work in progress,” Hibbert conceded. “We’re trying to keep working on it.”
Other No. 1 seeds have been stretched and even beaten in the first round before, but not by a team as flimsy as the Hawks, who backed into the postseason with a 38-44 record, and only because the New York Knicks were too inept to claim that last berth.
The truth is, the Pacers’ troubles began long before the playoffs arrived, and they have never really abated.
It was late March when Hibbert grumbled aloud about “some selfish dudes” in the locker room, a startling admission that only confirmed what rival scouts and coaches were already noticing: that the Pacers’ famed chemistry was cracking. It only deteriorated from there, with Stephenson and Evan Turner reportedly trading punches on the eve of the playoffs.
There are still more theories than hard facts, but those who have watched the Pacers closely see a team with conflicting agendas. At the center of it all: Stephenson, whose talent is matched only by his volatility and who, as it happens, is on a contract drive.
Ten weeks ago, the Pacers traded respected veteran Danny Granger for Turner, a former No. 2 overall pick who happens to play the same position as Stephenson. The Pacers needed rotation depth at the wing, but the move was widely viewed as a long-term insurance plan—a hedge against Stephenson pricing himself out of the Pacers’ range this summer.
Turner lacks Stephenson’s shooting touch and his intensity, but he was nevertheless a threat to Stephenson’s current role and his future standing.
Within weeks of the trade, scouts noticed Stephenson—and to a lesser extent, George—taking more control of the ball, undermining point guard George Hill and throwing the Pacers’ offense into disarray.
As one Eastern Conference scout remarked, “It sure looks like Stephenson’s competing with Turner.”
Soon, Hill was slumping, Hibbert was sulking and the Pacers were staggering. They won just 10 of their final 23 regular-season games.
“George Hill’s playing of the point guard has decreased substantially in the second half of the season,” the scout said. “When you get guys that aren’t happy with their roles, other areas of the game suffer.”
The Pacers’ offense, which was never among the NBA’s most dynamic in the best of times, only grew more chaotic with Stephenson at the helm. As the same scout said, wryly: “I have a hard time believing that anybody can really get a good feel for what Lance Stephenson is doing with the basketball.”
In the past, the Pacers relied on associate head coach Brian Shaw to keep everyone’s heads and priorities straight, to call out any player who strayed from the pack. But Shaw left for Denver last summer and left a leadership gap in the locker room.
The code that the Pacers’ once abided—of keeping all conflicts in house, of holding each other accountable—cracked when Hibbert spoke out in late March, and crumbled further when word leaked out about the fight between Turner and Stephenson.
George seemed to be alluding to those internal conflicts as the Pacers contemplated elimination last Thursday.
“I just wish we all would have held each other more accountable with what was going on,” George said.
After Sunday’s victory, George again called for discretion, saying, “Everything’s got to be in-house for this group.”
Turner has proven to be a poor fit, and it was notable that he did not play a minute in the Pacers’ last two victories. Stephenson has won that battle, but he’s still fighting the battle with his own self-destructive impulses.
Late in the third quarter Sunday, Stephenson was overheard by Candace Buckner, the Indianapolis Star beat writer, complaining to the official scorer, “You missed my rebound!”
Stephenson wasted the final possession of the period after overdribbling and booting the ball out of bounds. He nearly committed an 8-second violation while lazily dribbling the ball up late in the fourth quarter.
Anxious cheers filled the arena all night, but the mood lifted when Stephenson threw down a flying tomahawk dunk for a 92-78 lead with 80 seconds to go.
This was not a ringing triumph. This was merely survival, a temporary reprieve. The Washington Wizards await in the next round, and they are bigger, deeper and infinitely more talented than the Hawks.
The Pacers advance, but they advance with all of the same internal tensions that have plagued them since early March, and a brittle chemistry that might not withstand the pressure of a long playoff run.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Pacers began to drift in all directions—some toward the tunnel, others toward the Hawks bench, to shake hands and convey well wishes to friends. The 7'2" Hibbert extended those long arms, his palms up and motioned for them all to come back to midcourt.
“We always huddle up after a series,” Hibbert said later. “But I guess we have a bunch of new guys. So they wanted to go talk to other guys on the other team. So that’s something we’ve gotta work on.”
After two weeks and seven anxiety-riddled games, the Pacers are advancing—their destination a mystery, even to them.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.