That is, until the Miami Heat came in to shut the factory down for good—kill the lights, board the windows and doors and let the rats and roaches take over.
Who will represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals is, at this point, a formality measured in mere days. There have been sunrises that felt less inevitable.
Until then, we’re left with the death pangs of a Pacers team whose story arc has mimicked that of a neighborhood bully: rough and tumble when left to feast on the feeble, full of excuses once busted in the chops by a real challenger.
In the wake of their 102-90 Game 4 loss Monday night, the Pacers offered up rationalizations aplenty for the seemingly insurmountable hole in which they now find themselves.
First it was All-Star forward Paul George, normally a paragon of press-conference professionalism, who posited a tired, time-tested trope typically reserved for feckless fans:
"It's just demoralizing when [the free throws are] lopsided," George said (via ESPN’s Brian Windhorst). "I mean, I'm sorry to say, but that was the case. How rare is it we shoot 50 percent, turn the ball over around 13 or so times, outrebound a team and lose a ballgame? I thought we did a great job. I just thought we did a great job. ... But, again, they made 30 free throws, and that put them over the edge."
“Home-cooking,” George called it, as if the 20 points Miami scored off of Indiana turnovers never happened. As if those masterful outings by LeBron James and Chris Bosh would’ve somehow been squandered otherwise.
Next it was Roy Hibbert, Indy’s embattled center, who used his latest zero-point performance as a launching pad for passive-aggressive theatrics:
"The game plan really wasn't to utilize me as much; I'm just trying to be effective as I can," Hibbert said, per Windhorst. "Would I like a little bit more touches early on? Yeah. But that's how the cookie crumbles sometimes…I can only control what I can control. I can't control plays called for me."
All of which is likely to remain a minor footnote to Indiana’s most poorly timed transgression: Lance Stephenson’s doomed foray into high-level head games with the planet’s greatest player.
Less than 48 hours after poking the beast that is LeBron James, Stephenson’s nine-point performance was so eminently forgettable that even George couldn’t be bothered to a brother’s defense.
Lance is young, that’s a teaching point. That’s a learning lesson for him. Sometimes you have to just watch what you say. You’re on a big stage, everything we say is going to be bulletin board material. It’s really going to have a powerful meaning behind it. We have to be smarter with situations and voicing our opinions sometimes.
Listening to the Pacers players, you get the sneaking sense that the science behind their chemistry is unnecessarily complicated—that all of the struggles and attendant doubts about their basketball ceiling have made it such that simply tolerating one another is a kind of moral victory.
While Indy’s fragility has been surfacing since roughly early February, the first signs of genuine discord came by way of a March 31 story from NBA.com’s David Aldridge, in which Hibbert called out “some selfish dudes” for unraveling the Pacers’ once-potent play.
Some have speculated that Hibbert was referring to Stephenson, who ESPN’s Marc Stein reported had gotten into an altercation with teammate George Hill during Indy’s 26-point home loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
A few weeks later, Stephenson was implicated in yet another skirmish, this one involving recent trade acquisition Evan Turner, per Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski.
That’s a lot of acrimony for just one team over a single season—a two-month stretch of a single season at that.
As Bleacher Report’s own Howard Beck wrote following Indiana’s narrow Round 1 win over the Atlanta Hawks, Hibbert’s off-the-cuff comments may have been seen by teammates as a breach of a once ironclad trust:
In the past, the Pacers relied on associate head coach Brian Shaw to keep everyone’s heads and priorities straight, to call out any player who strayed from the pack. But Shaw left for Denver last summer and left a leadership gap in the locker room.
The code that the Pacers’ once abided—of keeping all conflicts in house, of holding each other accountable—cracked when Hibbert spoke out in late March, and crumbled further when word leaked out about the fight between Turner and Stephenson.
Rather than hash out the heated feelings from the comfort of closed doors, Indiana has instead let the mounting malfeasance infect every facet of its now fast-fracturing foundation—the result being a team left to vent its frustrations through veiled potshots and pathetic ploys.
The Heat, of course, smelled this weakness from five battlefields over, seizing, as seasoned teams should, on the basketball byproduct of Indiana’s caustic chemistry.
The juxtaposition—between the biters and the barkers, the walkers and the talkers—couldn’t be starker.
Neither, it seems, could the well-worn lesson that Indiana’s tumult has taught us anew: that, when it comes to scaling the NBA mountaintop, sometimes the biggest hurdle is the one that’s internal.