The Indiana Pacers are lucky to still be alive in the Eastern Conference playoffs. They are heading back to South Beach to play Game 6 against the Miami Heat instead of kicking back by the ocean on a postseason vacation.
The Pacers have dealt with issues that habitually plagued them during the last half of the season, the first round of the playoffs and into the Conference Finals.
How do they get center Roy Hibbert going? Who holds the keys to the offense without an elite ball-handler or passer to set things up? When will Paul George show off his MVP-caliber talent? And how should the team grapple with the severe lack of both offensive and defensive ability from its woeful bench?
In some ways, the Pacers' 93-90 victory Wednesday night answered these questions. Hibbert put up a double-double. While Lance Stephenson notched five assists, it was obvious that this team was George's to run for at least one night, and his isolation ball was good enough for the win. George put up a monster 37 points, 21 of which came in the fourth quarter. Lastly, head coach Frank Vogel solved his bench problem simply by barely playing them—each starter played at least 38 minutes.
Unfortunately for the Pacers, most of these solutions turn out to be aberrations.
LeBron James, winner of multiple MVP awards and championships, got into foul trouble, and he was limited to just 24 rough minutes wherein he put up a meager seven points on 2-of-10 shooting.
Leaving out the fact that James is rarely in foul trouble (because he usually plays a very disciplined and heady game), if he is in the game for 40 minutes without thinking about his foul trouble, the ripple effects on the game are vast.
LeBron's presence means fewer minutes for Rashard Lewis, who played 31 minutes and managed just four rebounds, which is a big plus for the Heat's interior defense and their ability to clean up the boards against Hibbert, even if Lewis was an efficient and effective offensive weapon for the Heat.
LeBron's presence means one of the most athletically gifted, physically dominant and fundamentally strong defenders of all time is matching up with George one-on-one for the entire game. Instead, you saw a smaller, creakier Dwyane Wade on George, and Flash was visibly weary and gassed throughout George's fourth-quarter supernova of scoring.
LeBron's presence means aggressive drives into the lane, racking up fouls on the Pacers' key players and forcing Vogel to tap into his thin bench.
Obviously, one of the best players alive is going to have an impact on the game when he sits. But this goes beyond impact on the physical events on the court and into the more psychological things, something that seems way too familiar when people discuss the Pacers.
Can one reasonably expect George to play with the confidence and swagger that he did during his incredible performance if he knew LeBron was coming for him, play after play, on offense and defense? Would Hibbert feel more comfortable and in rhythm if he knew that every defensive possession he would have to think about patrolling the paint to limit James' fearsome rim attacks?
The answer is a resounding "no."
While Indy is certainly thankful for the series-saving victory, it does not have much by way of results to look at for future games, confirming the relative unreliability of its Game 5 win.
As you can see from the video above, the fouls themselves were certainly of the lighter variety. An arm swipe on George and an elbow nudge to George Hill sent him to the bench in the first quarter.
A collision with a sliding George that could have been a blocking foul sent LeBron to the bench halfway through the second quarter. Then, a very questionable fourth foul on a tap to Hibbert's elbow. Finally, a tumbling arm hook on a hustling Stephenson put LeBron on the pine for much of the third quarter.
Even then, though, with their team leader sitting out and playing on the road in a rowdy environment, the Heat were still able to come back with runs of their own throughout the game. The Heat even almost stole a victory in the tight fourth quarter with a Chris Bosh three-point shot that would have given Miami the lead clanking off the rim and effectively ending the game.
If James competes at his usual level without fouling this Friday night, with the game's referees potentially swallowing their whistles a bit in reaction to the over-calling of Game 5, then it is likely that the series wraps up and the Heat surge into the 2014 NBA Finals.