They kvetched and cried, talked trash and tossed one another under double-decker buses. So many times, they played the game like it was the last thing on earth they wanted to do.
Yet when playoff push came to shove, the Indiana Pacers dug deep and, despite so many self-inflicted wounds, walked away Wednesday night with a 93-90 series-saving victory over the Miami Heat in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Seldom has there ever been a playoff game whose level of aesthetic excitement shot from beached-shark carcass to basketball’s Hendrix at Monterey with such dizzying warp speed.
That the Pacers wound up being the ones to set the ax alight was, perhaps, the most shocking ending of all.
There have been more flawed teams to make it this far down the postseason pike. And there surely have been more unpredictable ones.
But never has there been a team so flawed and so unpredictable—poised and punishingly effective one night, a train of propane tanks sent careening into crosstown traffic the next.
What’s portended by the Pacers’ display—punctuated by Paul George’s 37-point explosion—is impossible to say. But there will be a Game 6, in Miami on Friday night. And the Pacers will be there.
Which Pacers? You might as well consult chaos theory.
Following Miami’s 102-90 win in Game 4 Monday night, George took to the postgame podium to posit his 2,500,000 cents: that the Pacers had borne the undue brunt of the refs’ whistles.
Two nights later, Indy’s eight-foul, 14-free-throw advantage helped give the home-team the conspiratorial respite it was looking for.
It certainly helped that five of those fouls belonged to LeBron James, bolted to the bench for half the game en route to a career-playoff low seven points on a putrid 2-of-10 from the floor.
Credit, though, where credit is due. Indiana could’ve just as easily let itself be brushed aside, the half-sharp glass shard of a gentleman’s sweep. It could’ve welcomed the inevitable, knowing the added pain that comes with delay.
But there was George, gorgeously gliding in and out of screens before rising up and whipping net.
There was David West, wasting no bullets of his own, wall of brawn on the boards, savvy touch on so many jumpers.
There was Roy Hibbert—the most polarizing of all Pacers—dutifully doing the double-double dirty work.
And there was Lance Stephenson: undisputed star of the whole sordid soap opera, quadrupling down on his futile excuse for psychological warfare—with hilarious results for once.
As if this team wasn’t weird enough already, there was Stephenson—so unstable his molecular half-life is measured in trillions—offering up the most compactly poignant point of all:
One game at a time. It’s only cliche if you’re not the ones fighting for another day.
Say what you will about these Pacers (and plenty has been said), theirs is a pedigree you don’t often come across in today’s NBA. Because for all the silly sideshows and intermittently brutal basketball, brim-loaded doesn’t begin to describe the stubbornness that lies beneath.
To survive Wednesday night, the Pacers needed every bounce to break right. They needed their team’s best player to author the most enrapturing performance of his short career and the enemy’s best—a basketball machine immune to reverse-engineering—to produce his worst.
They needed every tossup call and every surge of the crowd. They needed Wade to waiver and Bosh to botch and LeBron to bungle. They needed not just a miracle, but a perfect miracle. And they got it.
By tipoff time Friday, the Heat will have watched enough game film to make their eyeballs bleed. They’ll be so mad about losing an extra day of pre-NBA Finals rest that Michael Beasley will have to carry a Barbie backpack full of ball bearings up four flights of stairs 40 times—just because.
If ever a team was poised to be prepared for a playoff game, it’s these Heat for this Game 6.
To survive and stage a home-court Game 7, the Pacers must withstand a full-throated basketball fury the likes of which they’d wish they’d never seen. Even Miami’s fans—so often the brunt of front-runner barbs—are sure to bring the bombast, booze-loaded and impossibly loud.
Which Pacers team will show up? You could flip a billion coins; odds are even on the outcome: The one that’s already dealt its death rattle, or the one you know is still alive only after the venom is in your veins.