Wednesday night's 86-82 victory granted the Pacers reprieve from deeply rooted conflicts that have kept the entire team on edge. It provided a requisite boost in confidence and erased many of the frowns and scowls that have plagued huddles and postgame pressers for too long.
But they've been here before, riding the wave of single wins and series victories, hoping some lasting rays of positive light can be shed over their faintly lit, now-indistinct identity.
Was Game 2 a sign of things to come or just another case of momentary success offering a transient escape from unexpected reality?
Before now, the Pacers' identity wasn't complicated. They played defense, and they won.
Team unity remains the most important thing in Indiana. These Pacers were once the proud owners of unflappable bonds that became undeniably apparent roughly one year ago when they came within a single victory of an NBA Finals berth.
For most of this season, their chemistry remained intact. They went 46-13 through their first 59 games, forcing even the staunchest Miami Heat supporters to look at them as not only a threat, but an Eastern Conference favorite.
Quicker than anyone could have imagined, it was all gone. The Pacers closed out the regular season going 10-13. During that time, they ranked dead last in offensive efficiency, and their top-ranked defense fell to eighth, per NBA.com (subscription required).
The wins stopped piling up, the future became less certain and—more tragically—their overlying uniformity began wilting.
Hibbert called out his teammates in March, per NBA.com's David Aldridge. Tensions between Evan Turner and Lance Stephenson—two players angling for their next contract—spilled over onto the practice court just before the playoffs, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. Marc Stein of ESPN.com said Frank Vogel was coaching for his job during the postseason.
Things were a mess. Rumors of dysfunction were swiftly denied, but something was obviously wrong.
After it took seven games for the Pacers to dispatch the eighth-seeded Hawks—who held a 3-2 series lead, mind you—the team fell at home to the Wizards in Game 1. Hibbert, who has struggled more than anyone of late, posted a double-bagel in 18 minutes of action, failing to record a single point or rebound.
Some of his teammates took exception to his lackluster performance, per Pacers.com's Scott Agness:
Paul George was none too happy with his floundering teammate either.
Frustrations were mounting and, worse, fingers were being pointed at Hibbert. And rightfully so.
The 7'2" behemoth entered Round 2 averaging 5.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks on 37.2 percent shooting in 21.9 minutes of action. He had one good quarter against the Hawks and was showing no signs of turning things around.
Ahead of Game 2, the Pacers' defensive linchpin had been supplanted by an uncoordinated scourge whose rut was, apparently, contagious. Worse, Hibbert's woes weren't being looked at in an individual vacuum. They became a direct representation of all that was wrong with the Pacers.
Even worse still, it remained unclear whether Hibbert or the Pacers would snap out of it. Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan wrote a splendid piece on the matter following Game 1, which explained the growing concerns surrounding Indiana:
Over 31 wholly mediocre minutes in the Indiana Pacers’ 92-80 series-saving win over the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday, Roy Hibbert managed to keep the narrative demons at bay—back at a safe enough distance to incite, however slight, some modicum of hope.
Forty-eight hours later, we’re right back where we began, reading into Hibbert’s zero-point, zero-rebound performance Monday night—a 102-96 Game 1 loss to the Washington Wizards—a possibility that a few months ago would’ve sounded utterly ludicrous.
Roy Hibbert, All-Star center and low-post defensive presence, is never coming back.
Diagnosing the Pacers' problems in broader context wasn't an option at one point. This would come to pass.
It had to.
Faced with the prospect of going down 2-0 against Washington, the Pacers stepped up.
Hibbert stepped up.
In a little over 33 minutes of action, Hibbert tallied 28 points, nine rebounds and two blocks on 10-of-13 shooting. It was the first time in over one month he topped 15 points, and it offered hope that the big man's confidence had returned.
See, the Pacers need Hibbert. He's supposed to be both a star and an X-factor. When he scores at least 15 points, they're 16-5 on the year, playoffs included. On the nights he goes for 20 or more, they're 9-2.
The Pacers cannot afford to have him sitting on the sidelines or being an on-court deterrent. They need him for his defense. They need him to become a more consistent presence on the glass. They need him to be the offensive threat he was last spring, when he averaged 17 points per game during the playoffs.
One game isn't enough to inspire unbridled optimism in Hibbert and the Pacers, but it sure seemed like enough to positively impact their cumulative spirits.
Any suggestion that Hibbert had become an outcast was quelled by an impromptu fishing trip. I'm not kidding.
Here's what Hibbert said following Game 2, courtesy of Pacers.com's Mark Montieth:
Yesterday after practice, he (Paul George) invited me out on his boat and we fished for about two hours, and just relaxed and didn’t talk about basketball. We just talked about life and trying to catch some bass. He reached out and got my mind off things. Hopefully it’s something I can build on, and he’s a great teammate, so I really do appreciate him reaching out because he didn’t have to.
Go ahead. Laugh. But to the Pacers, this stuff matters.
Again, much of their success is predicated on their first-rate relationships both on and off the court. That's exactly why such a fuss was made over their midseason acquisitions of Andrew Bynum and Turner.
And speaking of Bynum, the Pacers announced they would be parting ways with the embattled tower who appeared in just two games for them. Interpreted literally, that's not a big deal. Inactive players should have no effect on team dynamics or player psyches.
Apparently, though, Bynum—like he has been known to do—had a toxic impact on the Pacers, specifically Hibbert.
A source told NBA.com's Steve Aschburner that bringing Bynum "aboard rankled Hibbert," because Vogel "ran plays to get Bynum involved offensively that he rarely calls for Hibbert." Eye on Basketball's Matt Moore offered some additional context as well:
There's been a... suspicious trend with Bynum since about 2011. Every team he's been signed to has suffered locker room dysfunction and on-court disaster. You can't reasonably blame Bynum for Hibbert's struggles... but I mean... Lakers... Sixers... Cavaliers... the dude has left more disaster in his wake than Godzilla.
Conspiracy theories will allege different things; many, if not all, will be wrong.
The truth is, we won't ever actually know if Bynum played a role in Hibbert's untimely and unsightly regression—not unless Hibbert cops to it himself. But it's not outside the realm of possibility. And if it's in any way true, there's reason to believe Hibbert's one-game surge will stick with Bynum gone.
Pump the brakes if you haven't already.
Game 2 was one contest.
Say that to yourself over and over again. This was one game. Not much insight can be gleaned from one game—one only slightly impressive game.
Watching Hibbert dominate on offense was refreshing, but it came at the expense of ball movement and the fluidity of an already infirm Pacers offense. Hibbert was, by his recent standards, sensational. Everyone else not named George Hill was not.
David West, Stephenson and George combined to shoot 11-of-33 from the floor. Force-feeding Hibbert threw the entire team out of rhythm. Predominantly on-ball scorers like George and Stephenson were playing away from the rock more. Hibbert's offense did nothing to open up things for West.
Oh, yeah, the Pacers almost lost, too.
Their biggest lead was eight points. They were trailing in the final minutes. The Wizards seemed perfectly inclined to let Hibbert have his moment so long as the rest of Indiana didn't.
To an extent, it worked. Had John Wall and Bradley Beal not become so three-point happy down the stretch, perhaps we're taking about another loss, another Pacers letdown.
Playing like this won't win the series. Hibbert still needs to improve defensively when guarding Marcin Gortat and Nene, who combined for 35 points. Some semblance of consistency needs to be established on the offensive end.
There cannot be this revolving uncertainty hanging over the Pacers, who won't suddenly be cured of all ailments because they squeaked out one victory.
Until their recaptured chemistry reveals itself in the form of natural, unbidden, lasting on-court harmony, lone bright spots must be seen as temporary. These Pacers still have a lot to prove, and a lot to fix, and they are working within a stringent time frame that makes it unlikely for them to restore championship order.
More than two months of difficulties will not melt away in one night.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise attributed.