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How Long Can Indiana Pacers Survive as Playoffs' Most Unpredictable Team?

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 14, 2014

If you've given up on trying to figure out the Indiana Pacers, you're not alone.

Up 3-1 with a chance to close out their second-round series against the Washington Wizards at home, the Pacers completely collapsed, losing 102-79. It was a result that shouldn't have been surprising, given Indy's up-and-down play throughout this rocky postseason.

But it was still somewhat startling, both because of the overall margin of defeat and because it seemed like Indiana had turned a corner in the series.

Paul George was fresh off a 39-point outburst that had everyone believing Indy had its superstar back. Roy Hibbert had strung together a handful of solid games, emerging from a troubling funk that brought the ongoing viability of his NBA career into legitimate question.

Overall, the Pacers had won three in a row against Washington, with an 85-63 thrashing in Game 3 standing out as the clearest sign yet that they'd finally rediscovered that calling-card defense.

So much for that.

 

D.C. Dominates

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 13:  Marcin Gortat #4 of the Washington Wizards celebrates against the   Indiana Pacers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Credit the Wizards, who controlled the game in an impressively thorough fashion.

Washington hit a cool 50 percent of its shots from the field, held Paul George to just 15 points on 15 shots and made Hibbert look an awful lot like the guy who'd disappeared earlier in the playoffs.

John Wall posted a career playoff high, finishing with 27 points to go along with five rebounds and five assists.

And Marcin Gortat was a complete animal in the lane, going off for 31 points and 16 rebounds on 13-of-15 shooting.

On the glass, the Wizards utterly erased Indiana, piling up a rebounding margin that was truly eye-popping.

Washington won this game as much as Indiana lost it, and the young Wizards will head back home for Game 6 with all the confidence in the world. The Pacers will make the same trip, but they'll do it as a team searching for answers and a sense of identity.

Which basically puts them in the same boat as everyone who's been watching them play for the past few months.

Indiana was dejected on the bench during the second half. Shoulders sagged low, there were towels draped over players' heads and you could see the question plaguing everyone from Frank Vogel to Lance Stephenson: "Is this really happening again?"

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 13: David West #21 of the Indiana Pacers watches from the bench in the fourth quater of the 102-79 loss to the Washington Wizards in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Pacers seem wholly unpredictable now. Three straight wins would have meant something to any other team—momentum, perhaps. Or at least an indication of quality play in the future.

Not for Indiana. There's no way to read the signs with this team because none of the signs are reliable.

 

A New Spectrum

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 13:  David West #21 of the Indiana Pacers protests being charged with a foul in the 102-79 loss to the Washington Wizards in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Maybe the problem with predicting how Indiana will play has nothing to do with the team, though. Maybe it has to do with us. 

After all, if the Pacers seem unpredictable, isn't that really just our own failure to set up reasonable parameters for how we think they'll perform? Unpredictability isn't inherent. It's really just a measure of how we think something will happen against how it actually happens.

Here's the adjustment we have to make, and it's one that should help in the task of predicting how Indiana will play in the future: We can completely rule out a reappearance of the team we saw in the early season.

Those dominant Pacers are gone. Dead. Extinct.

Whenever George has had a huge game or Hibbert has appeared serviceable, we've mistaken it as a sign that Indiana is rediscovering its early form again. In reality, Indiana's new spectrum of performance no longer features the extreme positive it did in January.

The ends of that adjusted spectrum are now "utterly horrible" and "halfway decent."

That's the range of Indiana's play. Good, reliable, consistent basketball is out of the question. So just forget it.

Remember, this Wizards team isn't good by any objective measure. Washington is exciting, it has some young players who should get better and it made the playoffs because it bumbled its way through an inferior conference at a .500 clip for most of the season.

So when Indy eventually wins this series, as it probably will, let's not jump to the conclusion it's ready for the Miami Heat in the conference finals.

 

The New Expectation

MIAMI, FL - April 11: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat handles the ball against the Indiana Pacers at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida on April 11, 2014. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

All we've learned in this postseason is that the Pacers can be bad enough to lose to anyone and decent enough to beat teams like the Atlanta Hawks and Wizards. But they cannot, under any circumstances, compete with the Heat.

Because the Heat are good, and Indiana no longer has that setting on its dial.

Hopefully, that clears things up going forward. We can all stop expecting the Pacers to be more than they are. And for one of the most unpredictable teams in the playoffs, one thing is absolutely, unassailably foreseeable: If they survive this series against Washington, they're going to get completely crushed by Miami.

How's that for a prediction?

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