It was the final nail in the coffin.
Now that they've officially been eliminated without reaching the NBA Finals, the 2013-14 season can't be viewed as anything other than a massive disappointment for the Pacers, a sentiment that coach Frank Vogel expressed after the game to reporters, via Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press.
It's bitterly disappointing to fall short of our goals. It's bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row. But we're competing against the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era, and you have to tip your hats to them for the way they played this whole series.
Throughout the year, there was no doubt that earning the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference was the goal, but it was only an intermediary one. Indiana hoped to earn that top record in the league's weaker conference so that it could have the luxury of homecourt advantage during a seemingly inevitable Game 7 with Miami.
Well, that Game 7 never came.
The intermediary goal was met, but not the final one. Why? Look no further than Game 6, as it essentially served as a quick synopsis of everything that went wrong during the second half of the season.
If any outing was a microcosm of the Icarian fall, it was this one.
And let's not forget that Indiana looked like title favorites at one point during the 2013-14 campaign. These weren't just upstarts hoping to dethrone the two-time champions, but rather a squad of veterans and young standouts boasting one of the best defenses in NBA history.
That wasn't an exaggeration, though the past tense is oh so necessary in the present.
During the stretch run, everything went wrong.
Paul George stopped playing like a superstar. Roy Hibbert devolved from a rim-protecting All-Star into a lumbering liability. Lance Stephenson's antics were no longer overshadowed by his fantastic play. Above all else, the defense had enough holes that it couldn't carry the struggling offense on a nightly basis.
If you're wondering whether I'm describing the second-half decline or the Game 6 woes, you're correct. It's both, as the final game of Indiana's postseason featured every one of the Pacers' problems, all wrapped up in a neat package for your viewing pleasure.
That 117-92 embarrassment was just the bow on top.
Lance Stephenson's Antics
The dynamic 2-guard spent the 2013-14 season breaking out.
You could legitimately call him an All-Star snub while entering the second half of the season, as his attacking ways were paying large dividends for the Pacers. They could put up with immature moments—the taunts, the flops, the excessive celebrations—because he was putting up such stellar numbers.
But eventually, Stephenson's breakneck style stopped working quite so effectively.
Heading into Game 6, "Born Ready" was averaging 14.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game during the Eastern Conference Finals. He was even shooting 50 percent from the field, leaving no doubt that he was one of the most effective offensive contributors for the struggling Pacers.
Even still, his antics took center stage, as Bleacher Report's Sean Hojnacki explained so perfectly:
Stephenson will be a free agent this offseason, and he created many more highlights in the series with his immature antics instead of his sometimes excellent play. By the way, he ended with 11 points and four rebounds.
It's a shame when the numbers take a backseat to the behavior, but Stephenson earned that order on Friday night.
First, there was the trash talk aimed at LeBron James, a bout of verbiage that backfired. Then there was his decision to blow in LeBron's ear, a decision that led to the creation of quite a few memes. At that point, Larry Bird, the president of basketball operations, even told him to cut it out.
As Stephenson explained, via ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst: "He said, 'Don't do it again,' so I'm not going to do it again. He's kept me on the right path my whole career, and if he says something to me, I take it to heart."
To the 2-guard's credit, he didn't blow in LeBron's ear again. He just found other ways to make himself look like an immature player determined to function more as a clown than a legitimate contributor.
First, he took a stand over LeBron. Then he touched the four-time MVP's face in a completely unnecessary move:
Then he walloped Norris Cole across the face while "going for a loose ball:"
I use quotations there because it sure doesn't look like he was attempting to hit a certain orange sphere when you slow things down. His eyes are pointed at Cole's face, and the timing is too far off for such a physically gifted and coordinated player.
Congrats, Lance. That'll be the lasting memory of your 2013-14 season.
Good luck cashing in during free agency.
During the first half of the season, the Pacers simply couldn't be scored on. They absolutely shut opponents down with a tremendous rim-protecting center and a host of perimeter defenders who wouldn't let their men into the interior.
But as the season progressed, opponents chipped away at the aura of invincibility.
Teams realized that a sharp-shooting big man could pull Hibbert out of the paint, effectively neutralizing his ability to completely shut down the area of the half-court set closest to the hoop. And when that happened, the rest of the unit suffered, as perimeter stoppers no longer had that second line of defense functioning as one of the Association's best security blankets.
Things got especially problematic when the three-point-happy Atlanta Hawks forced a seven-game series in the opening round of the playoffs. And they continued when Chris Bosh pulled Hibbert away from the rim on a regular basis.
If you're looking for one of the worst performances of the season for this vaunted Indiana defense, it may have been the one that took place on Friday night. The Heat scored 117 points, a mark that had been topped only twice throughout the entire 2013-14 campaign, including both the regular season and the playoffs.
Quite frankly, that number could've been a lot higher had the game been competitive. LeBron didn't play in the fourth quarter, Dwyane Wade spent four minutes on the court and Bosh played nearly half of the final period.
Just imagine what the total would've looked like had Miami kept the pedal to the metal throughout the game rather than easing up to save the key players' legs for the Western Conference representatives they'll face in their fourth-consecutive NBA Finals trip.
Indiana's defense was a step slow throughout the night. It struggled with rotations and was constantly beat by the exact same play. If a power forward or center set a screen near the top of the key, the Pacers were going to trap the ball-handler, leaving themselves extremely vulnerable to a pop from the screener and an open jumper.
It happened time and time again, but it's not like Indiana did a much better job protecting the rim.
The Ineffectiveness of the Big Names
Take a guess at Hibbert's defensive rating during Game 6, and keep in mind that he's been an elite rim-protector even while the Pacers have fallen apart down the stretch.
Chances are, your guess was too low.
According to NBA.com, the big man checked in with a defensive rating of 134.6. To put that in perspective, Basketball-Reference.com shows that he posted a 98 defensive rating throughout the season, a number that rose to 104 during the postseason.
Not once did he have a defensive rating higher than 128 during either the regular season or postseason.
Until Game 6.
For even more perspective, that 134.6 mark was higher than any posted by the defensive sieve known as Carlos Boozer during the 2013-14 season.
Unfortunately for Indiana, Hibbert wasn't particularly effective on offense either. He finished with eight points, four rebounds and three assists on 1-of-3 shooting from the field, failing to make any sort of impact other than what any 7-footer could produce in his shoes.
And now we turn to George.
Just take a gander at the stark contrast between his Game 5 and Game 6 performances:
|Paul George's Up-and-Down Performance|
Now you might look at that and wonder where the contrast is coming from. After all, his numbers aren't that much better in the top row.
But let's take garbage time out of the equation.
In Game 5, George excelled during the closing stretch, hitting contested look after contested look while running down the court with flames emerging from all parts of his body. OK, that last part isn't true, but it sure felt like it.
Thirteen of George's points in Game 6 came during the fourth quarter, when the Heat were largely resting key players and not worrying about the slim possibility of giving up a 33-point lead. If you look at only the first three quarters, the small forward's line is much less impressive: 16 points, six rebounds and two dimes on 3-of-11 shooting.
And let's take things even further.
During the first half—which Miami took by 26 points to put the game out of reach at a pretty early stage—George had one point on 0-of-6 shooting. That's it. Does that sound like an offensive superstar?
Nonetheless, I'm not ready to say we can go ahead and retire that "superstar" word from the arsenal of nouns that can be used to describe George. He wasn't able to follow up his stellar opening salvo in 2013-14 with sustained excellence, but George thrived throughout the playoffs and consistently carried a large offensive burden for his team.
It just wasn't enough.
Now the focus shifts to the offseason, as the Pacers will be figuring out whether to keep Stephenson while desperately trying to upgrade their bench without going over the luxury-tax threshold. And if they need any reminders about what went wrong during the season, it's not particularly difficult to find them.
Just watch Game 6 again, painful as it may be.