Following a brief sabbatical, the Indiana Pacers are back to their old, confounding, terribly fragile postseason tricks.
For a minute there, the Pacers were becoming pleasantly predictable, playing the style of basketball that convinced the NBA there was a legitimate championship contender residing in Indiana. In three successive wins over the Washington Wizards, the Pacers regained control of their second-round series and restored faith in their ability to be more than Eastern Conference Finals provender for the Miami Heat.
David West logged a couple trademark do-everything performances.
Roy Hibbert proved his 7'2", 290-pound frame was more than just for show and rescuing kittens from the top of oversized refrigerators.
The Pacers were finally fixed.
Only they were never broken. They sure looked and played broken, but little about their up-and-down displays were out of character. This is the Pacers.
From the highs to the lows, the mountains to the molehills, the pretty and sensational to the unremarkable and beastly, this is the Pacers: a delicate team whose psychological fortitude is only as sturdy as the glass house it's encased in.
When things are going well for the Pacers, it's bliss personified. Players are smiling, the ball is moving, fishy offensive sets are overshadowed by impregnable defense and the team is unified and oozing confidence.
Most of the regular season was spent nesting in that euphoric paradise. They began the year 46-13 and remained perched atop the Eastern Conference, leering down at every other team, thoroughly enjoying the perks of playing lockdown defense and housing a charmingly middling offense.
Wrote the Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner following a March victory over the reigning NBA champs:
After one of the most immature moments of the season, the Indiana Pacers grew up.
They're fresh and skilled, anchored by a couple 23-year-olds with talent pouring out of their bodies. But sometimes, the Pacers can be a young and reckless bunch. It can rear up on the court with an offense that devolves into hero ball but on Wednesday, it manifested when one of the young stars, Lance Stephenson, lost himself and got ejected from the game late in the fourth quarter.
Yet, the other Pacers stuck around and acted like adults in the thrilling 84-83 win over the Miami Heat.
Hibbert, George, West, Lance Stephenson, George Hill—this was working. Things were good.
Glimpses into the Pacers' sophisticated bravado have even been offered amid postseason struggles. There have been some really bad games, but they've managed to evade elimination and keep chugging along. That, in itself, is a ballast on which confidence can be constructed.
"We feel [the Wizards are] more our style," George said after the Pacers narrowly escaped the Atlanta Hawks in Round 1, per The Washington Post's Jason Reid. "They play big...and that’s how we play. We’re ready for those guys."
Even the butterfingered Hibbert?
Even the butterfingered Hibbert.
"Roy knows we got his back, simple as that," George would tell the Indianapolis Star's Zak Keefer following the Pacers’ Game 3 win over Washington.
Back-having has never been a problem for the Pacers...following victories. Their minds are right, their rapport is intact and it's all fist pounds and chest bumps when they're winning. That's never been the issue.
Rebounding from a bad loss and sticking together through troves of bad breaks has been.
Consider all that's happened to the Pacers since the regular season ended.
Evan Turner and Stephenson were involved in some kind of tussle on the eve of the playoffs, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. Marc Stein of ESPN.com said Frank Vogel was coaching for his job.
Support for Hibbert turned to postgame lashings and closed-door powwows.
David West, Roy Hibbert and Rasual Butler appeared to have a talk in the weight room. Doors were shut. Guys declined to talk about it.— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) May 6, 2014
A beyond furious David West, on Hibbert: "He’s got to be part of the fight. H’s got to be part of this thing for us to go anywhere.”— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) May 6, 2014
"We’re at the point where we really need Roy and we need him now," George said following Indy's Game 1 loss to Washington, per Buckner.
When the Pacers are good, they're good. When they're bad, oh they're bad.
The Hawks were never a team that should have pushed the Pacers to seven games. They never should have held a 3-2 lead. The Pacers' ship shouldn't have been threatening to capsize under the weight of deformed offensive sets, seeming disinterest and a devolving Hibbert.
Beginning last spring, the Pacers were canonized for their chemistry. This team, while flawed tactically, was psychologically unflappable. You couldn't rattle the Pacers. At the first sign of adversity and heightened expectations, they started to crumble. It began during the regular season and followed them through to the playoffs, where an inferior Hawks team pushed them to the brink.
Three straight victories over the Wizards brought out the good. Up 3-1, the Pacers had a chance to close out the series in Game 5. They were at home, where they held the best regular-season record of any team. This was it. Second straight Eastern Conference Finals here they come. There was no doubting them now.
Until the devitalized side of the Pacers reared its ugly head once again.
The Undeniably Ugly
Game 5 was a disaster. It was a despicably atrocious display of basketball by the Pacers.
The Wizards out-muscled Indiana on the glass, snagging 62 rebounds to the Pacers' 23. George couldn't get going on offense. Hibbert disappeared. Their usually staunch defense allowed Marcin Gortat to join Dwight Howard's company:
Marcin Gortat joins Dwight Howard (2009) as ONLY players in last 30 postseasons with 30 pts, 15 reb & over 80.0 FG%— Jeremy Lundblad (@JLundbladESPN) May 14, 2014
There was no defending the Pacers' performance. It was inexcusable and ill-timed and representative of everything still wrong with this alleged title contender.
“We didn’t show up to play, man," West said per Pacers.com's Scott Ageness. "We just had no zip. We got to play. If we want this series, we’re going to have to take it."
No zip? No energy? In a potential series-clinching game? That's weak.
It was the Pacers' fourth home loss in this postseason. They've bounced back before, and they've won on the road before. But this was different. Even if the Pacers summon all that they were lacking on Tuesday night and get past the Wizards, does anyone really think a team that gets blown out at home in a closeout game has any chance of competing with Miami?
Or Brooklyn, for that matter?
No one should believe the Pacers can win the Eastern Conference at this point. Maybe they get past the Wizards playing inconsistent, identity-lacking basketball, but they won't supersede the Heat.
Acknowledging this isn't a hot take. Or presumptuous. The truly bold stance would be believing in a fragile team that loses its heads on a whim.
These are the same Pacers who went public with internal tiffs toward the end of the regular season, who were thrown off by the arrival of Andrew Bynum and Turner, who thought a fishing trip helped cure Hibbert of his on-court warts.
Championship teams aren't that fragile. Credit George for trying to help Hibbert clear his mind, but the mental states of true stars playing on genuine contenders should never call for soothing day-long excursions after months-long collapses.
How will the Pacers' postseason push end?
More importantly, Game 5s don't happen. They just don't. The Pacers could have lost, that's fine. The Wizards are a scrappy bunch that can harm you on both ends of the floor when on. But energy and the absence of will and cohesion should have never been an issue.
"We didn't have enough fight as a group to compete with that team tonight," West said, via Berger. "We blew a great opportunity."
They blew more than that. They were blown out on their own floor, embarrassed on their own turf, exposed during a game that gave them every reason to care for who they really are: a character-deprived basketball team that isn't broken, just inherently distorted.