Pacers Stars Proving Indiana Is Still a Threat in the East

Jim CavanContributor IMay 12, 2014

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During the months-long NBA soap opera that was Roy Hibbert’s precipitous fall from grace, it was easy to forget that Paul George—all beaming smile and upside for miles—hadn’t exactly held the hype.

Their respective comebacks might remain works in progress, but if George and Hibbert’s performances in the Indiana Pacers' 95-92 Game 4 win over the Washington Wizards are signs of times to come, we might want to rewrite our April epitaphs.

George’s outing was especially transcendent: 39 points (including seven three-pointers), 12 rebounds, a pair of steals and plenty of off-focus flights of brilliance—contributions told only through DVR rewinds and a coach’s quote:

Nearly cresting 40—in 46 minutes, no less—might wind up as the noteworthy nugget, but it was George’s efficiency that offered a welcome return to form.

The last time PG converted on more than half of his field-goal attempts was a 107-97 Game 5 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Round 1 when George charted 26 on 9-of-16 from the floor.

If the Atlanta series marked a renaissance for George (23.9 points and 10.7 rebounds per game on 46 percent shooting), then the Eastern Conference Semifinals have been Hibbert’s redemptive respitealbeit a much more muted affair.

After a Game 1 nightmare in which he failed to register a single point or rebound over 18 minutes, Hibbert’s last three outings have been comparatively colossal: 19.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game on 65 percent from the field.

Up 3-1 and headed back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse for Game 5, the Pacers are one sustained stand from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight year.

There, should the odds be honored, they’d likely face the Miami Heat...for the second straight year—a prospect, it need not be noted, Indy would most certainly relish.

Such a surge would’ve seemed impossible just two months ago, when the Pacers’ regular-season nosedive—typified to cartoonish effect by Hibbert in particular—seemed destined for a Round 1 wreck.

Thanks to the plucky Hawks, that scenario very nearly came to pass, with's report of head coach Frank Vogel was “coaching for his job” marking the macabre apex of Indiana’s dire downward spiral.

To be sure, the Pacers are far from in the clear.

With an offense this hit-or-miss, a violent regression is anything but out of the question. And when your bench manages a paltry two points, as Indy's reserves did Sunday night? You know your margin for error is crepe-thin.

Then there’s the question of Hibbert himself, who has somehow managed to turn what last year would’ve seemed mere mediocre showings into the stuff of roundball resurrections.

But while Hibbert might make for a convenient scapegoat, as Bleacher Report’s Stephen Babb duly notes, Indiana’s woes went much deeper than one center’s slump:

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.

Winning tends to mask even the most malignant of cancers, of course. There’s also certainly something to be said about Indy’s locker-room rancor being more the product of competitive professionals at a loss than a categorical, incurable schism of ids and egos.

Channeled toward the kind of 48-minute effort reflected by their last three wins, the Pacers’ hyper-competitive personalities find their stabilizing agent: a shared loathing—no other word for it—for the other team.

For the Heat, the hate hits levels hardly fit to print.

Should the Pacers take care of business on Tuesday, the prospect of another shot at the defending champs will no doubt be informed by this stat line: 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds on 56 percent shooting.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

That was the line levied by Hibbert in Indiana’s heartbreaking seven-game series loss in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.

That, the Pacers thought, would be the comforting constant around which George and Lance Stephenson could tether their next-level leaps should the two teams meet again.

Hibbert’s confidence could use a few more mends—the stitch of a powerful back-down baby hook here, the patch of a fleet-footed defensive rotation there—before last year’s form is found.

George? His ego hadn’t been bashed so much as bruised, hence the kind of quick recovery that suddenly has us wondering anew whether that rarefied air—the stuff breathed only by LeBron James and Kevin Durant—might actually be reached.

Seldom has a team as fundamentally flawed as these No. 1-seeded Pacers so routinely brought itself back from the brink, both of basketball doom and our own premature eulogies.

Maybe, then, that will be their ultimate identity: the team that used everyone else counting it out as the punch to put the doubters—and the other team—down for the count.