INDIANAPOLIS — For 15 riveting minutes Wednesday night, the full promise and potential of the Indiana Pacers was unleashed again, a vivid burst of energy and artistry and mischief that made you wonder once more: Could these guys actually win the Eastern Conference?
You watched those 15 minutes, and you wanted to believe it.
There was Paul George, rising again, a star again, soaring for audacious breakaway dunks, flinging three-pointers from the corner, raining havoc on the Miami Heat.
There was David West, bruising his way to the foul line, again and again.
There was Lance Stephenson, doing Lance Stephenson things, both mesmerizing (a slicing, right-handed scoop shot) and mischievous (blowing in LeBron James' ear).
There were the Pacers, in all of their youthful exuberance, rallying for a series-saving 93-90 victory, cutting the Heat's lead in the Eastern Conference Finals to 3-2, pushing the series back to Miami, extending their season for at least another 48 hours.
This was the Pacers team we expected, the one that stretched the Heat to seven games in the conference finals one year ago and dominated the early months of this season.
George was splendid Wednesday, emerging from a series-long funk to drop 37 points, 24 in the final 13 minutes, looking again like a potential future MVP. West was steady (19 points), Stephenson was solid (12 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists), and Roy Hibbert was, well, relevant (10 points, 13 rebounds).
You watched this spirited performance, and it was tempting to believe that team was back, that it could live up to its promise and dethrone the Heat.
Yet the hard truth is that these Pacers remain fragile and fickle, as likely to lose Game 6 by 20 points as they are to force another Game 7. Their focus wanes, their chemistry dissipates and suddenly everyone is back to pointing fingers.
The Pacers wandered aimlessly through the final months of the season, flirted with disaster in a seven-game, first-round tussle with the Atlanta Hawks and struggled to put away the Washington Wizards in the second round. That Indiana made it back to this stage is more indicative of the weakness of the East than anything else.
The Pacers survived Game 5 in large part because of James' uncharacteristic foul trouble, which limited him to 24 minutes and a mere seven points. That surely will not happen again.
George—freed from the burden of chasing James all night—was brilliant Wednesday, and he postponed the Pacers' day of reckoning, but that reckoning is surely coming soon. This victory barely masked the Pacers' frailties, their lack of cohesion and depth, their emotional immaturity.
It's easy to chuckle at Stephenson's antics—even James seemed amused by the ear-blowing incident—but his act has become tiresome to teammates and team officials, trapped in a constant cycle of managing (privately) and rationalizing (publicly).
The Pacers spent two days fielding questions about Stephenson's trash-talking and his ill-considered claim that James had shown "weakness" by responding to his taunts. James repaid Stephenson by torching the Pacers for 32 points in Miami's Game 4 victory.
Worse, Stephenson showed no remorse, despite the results. Until Wednesday morning, when he conceded that perhaps some things "shouldn't have been said." Stephenson then amended his pseudo-apology by saying his real mistake was not so much about taunting James on the court, but telling the media about it afterward.
"It's between me and him," Stephenson said. "It's not between everybody else."
Translation: He hasn't really learned anything at all.
Nothing changed Wednesday night. Immediately after that nifty scoop shot in the third quarter, Stephenson went chest to chest with Dwyane Wade and knocked him over, for a pointless foul. Then Stephenson spent several seconds complaining to referee Ed Malloy.
That was a common scene Wednesday. Earlier in the third, Stephenson lingered for several seconds on the court during a timeout, looking for officials to hear his grievances, long after his teammates had gone to the bench. Later, Stephenson sidled up to the Heat's huddle, listening in on Coach Erik Spoelstra's speech.
Between the trash talking and the complaining, Stephenson spent more time communicating with the officials and his opponent than his teammates.
As one Pacers insider noted, "He's not a bad kid—just irritating."
The rest of the Pacers aren't bad, either, just confounding. Hibbert set an ignominious (if obscure) record with four scoreless games in these playoffs, the most ever by a player who made an All-Star Game in the same season.
A year ago, Hibbert dazzled the league and battered the Heat, averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds in the conference finals. Now, Hibbert drifts in and out of relevance, asserting himself one night and inexplicably retreating the next, robbing the Pacers of one of their most potent weapons.
As for George, he has hardly looked like the borderline-MVP candidate who dominated the league for most of the season. His struggles could be forgiven, to a point; after all, George has been tasked with guarding James for nearly every minute of this series, and there is no more draining assignment in the NBA. But we expect the game's stars to play like stars every night.
Like his team, George seems too easily pushed off course. He blamed the Pacers' Game 4 loss on the officiating, promptly drawing a $25,000 fine from the league.
The NBA needs robust rivalries, and yet the Heat still have no true rival, four years into the Big 3 era. They have faced three different teams in the NBA Finals, and no one in the East can keep up.
The Chicago Bulls? They faded the moment that Derrick Rose's knee buckled. The Boston Celtics? They got old. The New York Knicks? Please.
A year ago, the Pacers came out of nowhere, knocked James and Wade around for seven games and planted the seeds for a burgeoning rivalry. They were young and brash and talented and ready to seize the throne.
Now the Pacers seem fortunate just to be here, their talent still evident but their spirit diminished. They might not be around to scrutinize much longer.
When the Pacers do fall, the disappointment will not be that they lost to James and Wade and an eminently talented Miami team. No, the disappointment is that they no longer seem worthy of this stage.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.