The Indiana Pacers are standing on the brink of destruction.
After the Miami Heat emerged from South Beach with a 12-point victory that pushed them to a 3-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals, Indiana is now completely out of wiggle room. Lose and go home. It's got a March Madness feel—at least in terms of the elimination factor—even though we're almost into June.
The thing is, the series hasn't been particularly close.
Sure, the Pacers won Game 1 and kept things close in the ensuing contests, but neither of the past two outings have seen Indiana within striking distance down the stretch.
Game 3 saw Indiana take a 21-14 lead after the opening quarter, but then the East's No. 1 seed pulled a Chinua Achebe. Things fell apart to the tune of an 85-66 drubbing over the next three periods.
The next outing wasn't much different.
Buoyed by a dominant third quarter, Miami stormed out to a lead that grew as large as 23 points with just under eight minutes remaining in the game. Indiana made things slightly interesting with an inspired run in garbage time, but it was the classic case of too little, too late.
Game 4 just wasn't close, no matter how much the final score tries to tell you otherwise. Or Paul George, for that matter.
George might have thought that Indiana outplayed its opposition on Monday night, blaming the free-throw disparity in the process, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Miami was the better team, and as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes explained, "Miami was faster, more precise and generally more skilled in its execution on offense. And Indy's defense was a step slow all night long. That's a recipe for a whole bunch of free throws if I've ever heard one."
That's now all that separates Miami from becoming the first team since the Boston Celtics in the 1980s to reach a fourth consecutive NBA Finals. Indiana is down, but is it out?
Have There Been Positive Signs?
Winning Game 1 handily is certainly cause for optimism, but there just haven't been too many things to write home about during the first four games of what was supposed to be (supposed to be during the early portion of the regular season, at least) a highly competitive battle between two elite squads.
In fact, the biggest positive sign for the Pacers may have everything to do with their opponent, despite how utterly dominant the Heat have looked in the last couple of outings.
"The margin is slimmer now, no question," Shane Battier told Grantland's Zach Lowe after Game 4. “We’re an unnervingly inconsistent team, and none of us know why. We’re talented, but we’re not that talented anymore where we can overcome that. Three years ago, we were a lot younger and springier."
While Miami has enjoyed fantastic play from its superstars, including Chris Bosh, who bounced back in a big way with his 25-point outing on Monday night, it's the role players who have been making a huge difference.
Norris Cole has done a stellar job corralling Lance Stephenson, allowing Ray Allen to match up with George Hill and avoid taking a physical beating against the bigger 2-guard. That opens things up behind the three-point arc for Allen, thanks to his conservation of energy on the defensive end.
Rashard Lewis, who hasn't even hit a shot since the final game against the Brooklyn Nets, was surprisingly inserted into the lineup for the two most recent contests. All he did was serve as a decoy, but he was an effective one. Miami outscored Indiana by 35 points when he was on the court, as the Pacers had to at least respect his shot.
What happens when these guys regress to the mean? What happens if Indiana realizes it doesn't really have to worry about Lewis? What happens when the disappearance of Battier and the hole Mike Miller used to fill actually come back to bite Miami?
As Battier admitted, the Heat are inconsistent. It wouldn't be at all surprising if they dropped Game 5, imbuing the Pacers with the confidence they lost and so desperately need to regain before they go fishing as an offseason pastime and not a means of team-building.
As for the Pacers themselves, they've shown fewer positive signs.
Miami is dismantling the highly vaunted defense by virtue of attacking Roy Hibbert at all times. The Heat simply aren't afraid to take the ball into the paint, and they're taking advantage of a defense that has been slower and less effective than ever before. On top of that, Bosh's outside shooting has been a huge weapon in spreading out the paint-packed troops in yellow.
And defense is still the stronger end of the court for the Pacers.
The offense is completely inept, confused by Miami's handling of its high pick-and-roll sets and creating all sorts of problems with turnovers. Just take a gander at the assist-to-turnover ratios that Indiana has produced throughout this series:
|Pacers' Passing Woes Aren't Passing|
This might be the biggest problem of all.
Miami has completely figured out how to guard Indiana's limited attack. By dropping back on picks and forcing ball-handlers toward the sidelines, the Heat are enabling their athletic wing players to intercept one pass after another. There's no penetration whatsoever, and the Pacers are relying far too heavily on making contested mid-range looks when they're not even a great shooting team in the first place.
Does any of that sound positive?
Is There Hope Left?
The Pacers have been here before.
If you recall the first round of the playoffs, Indiana trailed the Atlanta Hawks in the series, 3-2, needing to win both Games 6 and 7 in order to keep its championship dreams alive. Somehow it did, thanks to a complete collapse by the Hawks an inspired run down the closing stretch of the first contest and a confident outing a few nights later.
But these are not the Hawks.
Atlanta was a middling team taking advantage of a matchup nightmare while running such a gimmicky offense that it fired away more times from downtown than any team in NBA history had during a single series. I mean, the Hawks didn't even have a winning record during the regular season and were playing without their best player (Al Horford).
On the flip side, the Heat are the two-time defending champions, and while they've declined slightly since last year's impressive postseason, they're still a dominant squad featuring three players uniquely capable of carrying the team.
Oh, and they're up 3-1 instead of 3-2.
Essentially, Indiana is being tasked with winning three consecutive games against a superior opponent that clearly has its number. Good luck with that.
Making things even worse—and let's be clear that the Pacers' deficit is a product of talent and system, not just lost confidence—is the fact that this bunch no longer seems to be playing with the same vigor, enthusiasm and camaraderie that made it so dangerous during the early portion of the season.
"I think anytime you lose three in a row in the playoffs, it shakes your confidence some," Frank Vogel explained to The Associated Press after losing Game 4, via ESPN.com.
Shakes your confidence? It shatters it.
When the Pacers were on the verge of elimination against Atlanta, I summarized their chances of survival by admitting that it was possible, but not probable, for them to advance to the next round. They defied the odds, and I'll say the exact same thing once more, just with the probability dwindling to minuscule levels.
The second time's the charm. Or is that the third time?