Believe in the Indiana Pacers only once they give you something to actually believe in.
Which they haven't.
In their 107-96 victory over the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers looked every bit as intimidating and cohesive as they were once supposed to be. Everything the Heat did, they had an answer for. There was no trace of lethargy or disinterest, no cameo from the browbeaten and slumping giant that stumbled into the playoffs.
The Pacers were the Pacers, playing hard and smart enough to contend with the team they were built to beat, inciting newfound hope in the process, returning to a triumphant state that was once standard.
Prevailing over Miami in Game 1 was a step in the right direction, perhaps even the beginning of something special—an upset that felt impossible just weeks ago. It was not, however, definitive proof that the Pacers are back.
There is still plenty of series left to play and, more importantly, plenty of warning signs the Pacers have yet to disprove.
One-Game Aberration, or Prophetic Success?
Save for the intensity, nothing about Game 1 was predictable.
The Pacers offense was very un-Pacers. There was ball movement and flurries of made shots. All five starters eclipsed the 15-point plateau, buttressing an offense that tallied more than 105 points for the first time since the playoffs started. Indiana's 107 points were also the most it's scored since March 15.
Loosely translated, that means the Pacers aren't going to score like this every game. Because they aren't built to score like this every game. And because the Heat won't defend like this every game.
Most of the Pacers' damage was done within pick-and-rolls. They ran pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll. More than a quarter of their offensive plays that ended in shot attempts were pick-and-rolls, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). It was weird.
All kinds of weird.
Indiana has been a mediocre to below-average pick-and-roll team thus far. The Pacers ball-handlers rank 14th in pick-and-roll efficiency and their roll men are even worse (20th), per Synergy.
Less than 20 percent of their offensive sets come in these situations as well. Yet there they were on Sunday, running pick-and-rolls to no end, exploiting a Heat defense that has been one of the best at guarding against this very play.
Strike that. They're the very best.
Miami ranks first in defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers and fifth in screener coverage, according to Synergy. Opponents are shooting a combined 40.8 percent when running pick-and-rolls against the Heat. They're so adept at defending it, teams don't run it. Under 16 percent of their defensive possessions that have ended in a field-goal attempt have come when facing pick-and-rolls, per Synergy. That's insane.
Game 1 saw the Pacers shoot 46.7 percent off pick-and-rolls, taking advantage of Miami's ill-timed switches and general confusion. Ian Levy of FiveThirtyEight.com expanded on this quite nicely:
Against the Heat on Sunday, the Pacers were more efficient on pick-and-roll possessions, and they ran pick-and-rolls more often. The Pacers’ spacing was unusually precise, stretching the Heat’s defensive rotations and keeping driving lanes open for ball handlers. Paul George, Lance Stephenson and the rest of the Pacers’ backcourt players were also extremely careful with the ball, both in delivering passes to their rolling bigs and avoiding getting stripped on drives to the basket. Just 11 percent of their pick-and-roll possessions ended in a turnover in Game 1, better than their season-long average of 14 percent and far below the 23 percent the Heat defense forced this season.
That's not going to happen consistently. It may not even happen again. The Pacers didn't take down the Heat using their own brand of basketball. It was unusual—foreign, even. They won by turning personal offensive weaknesses into strengths, capitalizing on Miami's defense wilting where it's normally unflappable.
How are we supposed to believe in something that, quite frankly, is indicative of everything the Pacers are not?
Remembering Past Transgressions
One game does not erase months upon months of struggles.
Nor does a second straight Eastern Conference Finals appearance.
These Pacers limped their way into this series. It took them seven games to dispatch the eighth-place Atlanta Hawks. It took them six to eliminate the Washington Wizards. At no point in either series did you get the sense they were in absolute control. Not when they were down 3-2 to Atlanta, not when they were up 3-1 on Washington.
For most of the playoffs, the Pacers have been inconstant. Night to night, you've seen a different team, a contrasting effort, a varying level of confidence.
Paul George has been forced to carry the Pacers offense. Roy Hibbert has played now-you-see-me, now-you-don't basketball. Lance Stephenson has given you headaches. He has made you cheer. The Pacers have failed to rebound. They have crashed the glass hard.
They have rolled over. They have put up a fight.
They have been unsolvable.
That's been the most disturbing part of everything—the Pacers' on-again, off-again act. If they had been completely terrible all spring, you could feel confident in knowing a revival was unrealistic. If they had played well, you could feel comfortable in saying Game 1 was a sign of things to come.
Right now, after Game 1, after the Pacers made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, you are assured of nothing.
This is a fragile team. Momentum swings from one game to the next. They're high, then they're low. Lather, rinse, panic, rejoice, repeat.
Hibbert cannot be counted on to score 19 points every game. He scored 11 in their series-clinching victory over Washington. He tallied just four in their Game 6 loss. He's been turbulent.
And he's not alone.
George has connected on more than 40 percent of his shots just twice in the last seven games. Stephenson has drilled at least 50 percent of his field goals in each of the last three games. This after failing to top 38 percent in the four previous contests.
"When he's not playing well, it's really heavy, it weighs on him," West said of Hibbert, per ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. "Not just mentally but physically, it weighs him down."
Replace Hibbert with any other Pacer, and West's observation still holds true. They remain in a collective state of unpredictability—a place they didn't get to overnight, and won't escape in one, two or even three games.
How You'll Know
Take nothing away from these Pacers. Not Game 1, not their ability to reach the Eastern Conference Finals—nothing.
But let's not pretend everything is guaranteed to be peachy keen from hereon.
The Pacers did what they were supposed to do in Game 1: Hold home court against the Heat, a team they're constructed to rival and hopefully supersede. They know it's not an accomplishment. They know that they haven't beat Miami at anything, that they haven't completely reversed their declining fortunes just yet.
When they left the floor Sunday, there were smiles and expressions of relief. There was not a hint of satisfaction in their postgame pressers or their body language, though. This is a process, an ongoing matter that is still unfolding.
Remaining competitive against the Heat, hinges on the Pacers making adjustments, on carrying themselves with the same bravado and sense of responsibility that has eluded them on any given night since before the playoffs began.
The Heat will defend pick-and-rolls better in Game 2. They will defend better in general.
LeBron James will see more time on George.
Help will be sent earlier on West.
Things will inevitably be more difficult than they were in Game 1.
How will the Pacers respond? Will their performance in Game 1 be good enough? They're just 16-23 this year—playoffs and regular season—when opponents notch at least 96 points, after all. They have to make changes of their own and figure out how to harness their Game 1 energy into something sustainable.
Can they do that? And if so, will they?
“There’s nothing to celebrate," George Hill said afterward, per the Associated Press (via the New York Daily News). "It’s not like we won a championship. It’s one game.”
One game that, at best, is a building block on which lost faith can eventually be restored in a Pacers team that hasn't given us enough to believe in just yet.
*Stats courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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