Volatile Indiana Pacers Are Biggest Wild Card in the 2014 Playoffs

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 8, 2014

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For 48 minutes, the Indiana Pacers managed to escape the tire fire that engulfed their championship dreams and threatened to burn this entire core to the ground.

This could already be scorched beyond the point of salvaging, but that didn't stop two surprise saviors from making the attempt Wednesday night.

They just so happened to be the ones with the gas can, and the ones holding the matches who started this blaze to begin with.

All-Star center Roy Hibbertit's been a while since that label's been used for something other than sarcasm—finally looked the part. He scored the first five points of the contest, foreshadowing what would become his most important effort of the 2013-14 campaign.

A season-high 28 points (one less than he had in his last seven games combined), nine boards and two blocks later, his Pacers held on for an 86-82 Game 2 win over the Washington Wizards.

This was the dominant Hibbert, the one who terrorized the Miami Heat during the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. It was not the disastrous one who'd barely existed over the past few months, the one who resurrected ghosts from basketball's past eager for their kick of the fallen star:

The outside noise was deafening, and the locker room was hardly a sanctuary.

"He's got to be part of the fight," David West said after Hibbert's zero-point, zero-rebound performance in the series opener, via Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star (via USA Today). "He's got to be part of this thing for us to go anywhere."

You could almost hear Aloe Blacc's "The Man" playing in the background, but this was no Beats by Dre commercial. This was a superstar's disappearance the history books couldn't explain.

Drastic measures had to be taken, and the Pacers took all available to them.

Paul George grabbed Hibbert and George Hill (who snapped out of his own funk with a 14-point, 6-of-12 shooting effort Tuesday) for an emergency fishing trip. John Thompson III, Hibbert's college coach at Georgetown, secured a sideline seat inside Banker's Life Fieldhouse. The Blue and Gold faithful roared on Hibbert's first touch, creeping closer to a fever pitch with each ensuing bucket.

External forces finally tried to help instead of harm, but nothing had the impact of Hibbert embracing his internal challenge.

"David (West) always talks to me about being the person that rescues yourself when you're in the middle of the ocean," Hibbert said, via Michael Marot of The Associated Press. "There's nobody who can throw a lifesaver or a rope out to help you. So I had to do it myself."

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 24: Paul George #24, Roy Hibbert #55 and David West #21 of the Indiana Pacers in a game against the Sacramento Kings on January 24, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
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Hibbert had to find his form so the Pacers could rediscover theirs.

With the big man bullying the low block, the game simplified for the players around him. George (5-of-13) and Lance Stephenson (3-of-12) struggled to find their shots, but no one forced the issue. Indiana coughed up just seven turnovers, a little over half of what it gave away in the series opener (13).

Defensively, Frank Vogel's squad seemed confident and comfortable with the protection behind them. Perimeter players got out on shooters, and the Wizards managed just a 5-of-21 showing from deep (after hitting 10-of-16 in Game 1). Indiana got back on defense, limiting Washington to just a single fast-break point (13 less than it had Monday).

"I think as a team we paid attention to details," Hill said, via Pacers.com's Scott Agness. "We know they’re a great transition team, especially transition 3s. Every guy made a conscious effort to get back on D and find shooters and play basketball from there."

May 7, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal (3) is guarded by Indiana Pacers guard Lance Stephenson (1) in game two of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.  Indiana defeats Washington 86-82. M

Sometimes, it really is that simple.

It takes the right kind of focused energy, but it's just basketball at the end of the day. And throughout all the changing faces this team has worn, nothing can take away the knowledge of just how well this team can play basketball when everything clicks.

Outside of a few roster tweaks, this is still the group that started the season 46-13. It's still mostly the same players responsible for posting historic marks on the defensive end earlier this year.

That talent hasn't completely left, but it also can't be declared back after 48 minutes of survival.

The Wizards will return to Washington with home-court advantage in hand and the knowledge they've looked like the better team in both games. Hibbert's eruption helped, but it may have been meaningless had John Wall and Trevor Ariza not struggled through a combined 4-of-21 night from the field.

The standings still recorded it is an Indiana win, but Vogel's team has problems that need fixing fast:

If solutions are found, the rewards could be magnificent. If not, the Pacers will go down as a colossal collapse, their regular-season success easily forgotten with time.

The time is now for the Pacers to decide which path they want to take, as ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst explained:

The burdensome transition from potential to expectation -- the surly days of being overlooked and underpaid have been replaced with huge checks, magazine covers and fierce criticism -- will end at some point. Either they will be finished or they will have developed a callus that will act as the invaluable shield that championship teams develop.

At their best, the Pacers are still the big, physical threat capable of giving the two-time defending champion Miami Heat everything they can handle. Post-All-Star-break struggles have done nothing to the formula the Pacers have pestered the Heat with in the past.

Of course, there's no guarantee that their best will resurface before it's too late.

And if this team is at its worst, it's a non-factor in the big picture. Getting pushed by an undermanned, eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks squad to the brink of elimination proved as much.

That tire fire is still smoldering, explosively combustible as ever. One misstep and ashes will be the only remains of Indy's playoff plans.

If those flames are contained like they were Wednesday night, though, the Pacers can administer some burns of their own.