On the next to last night of May, every NBA writer is cranking out an obituary for the Indiana Pacers. You will read, in some form or fashion, the first of many words about this team, words such as “unpredictable,” “volatile,” “erratic,” “immature,” and “unprepared.”
You’re going to read about a team that reached Game 6 of the conference final round, which is supposed to be a really darn good season for any team without an established championship pedigree… such as the Miami Heat.
In these various obituaries from various news outlets across the country, you’re going to read about how the Pacers were once so unstoppable and then became so brittle. You’re going to read about how this team built a fortress on its home floor and then became such a conspicuously weak home team during the last month of the regular season and in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
You’re going to read about how this team couldn’t tie its shoelaces in three of its first five games against the sub-.500 Atlanta Hawks in the first round, and then found a way to not only get past the Hawks in an elimination Game 6 on the road after trailing by five with three minutes left, but win the series.
You’re going to read about how this team didn’t show up for Game 1 against the Washington Wizards and seemed headed for a five-game death against the Wiz… only to then reinvent itself for two weeks by booting Andrew Bynum from the locker room.
You’re going to read about how Roy Hibbert briefly found himself, and you’re going to read about how the Pacers did grind down an opponent with their defense, beginning to show signs of becoming the team that existed from November through January.
You’re going to read about how this team, in Game 1 of the East Finals against the Heat, played as close to a perfect game as one could have asked for. Coach Frank Vogel, on that Sunday afternoon, watched his team become everything he wanted it to be. If only for a brief period of time, Indiana really did find itself.
The question became, “Could the Pacers continue to be their best selves, or would the shadow selves that entered their locker room in February make a return appearance?”
In the second and third quarters of Game 3 against the Heat, the shadow selves returned and never really left. What had been a 17-4 first-quarter lead turned into a not-that-close-at-the-end loss, thanks to a complete inability to pass the ball, especially into the low post. Then, in the fourth quarter, the Pacers lost all focus on defense, repeatedly losing track of Ray Allen. These three bad habits — a lack of passing, an inability to attack the post, and chronic defensive shortcomings — caused the Pacers to lose in six games, and with a whimper at that.
When you read various Pacer obituaries, you’re going to read about these details, but what will make these obituaries interesting to read are the layers of interpretation and behind-the-scenes detail accompanying the very strange story of a team that simultaneously went very deep into the playoffs, and yet embarrassed itself at the end of its journey.
We’re not on site covering the conference finals, so our task at Crossover Chronicles is to try to make sense of this team as it prepares for an offseason that is certain to be marked by substantial change.
Many words will be written about the Heat — in the NBA Finals for the fourth straight season — over the coming days and weeks. Tonight, the more urgent and compelling story is the one surrounding Indiana.
PACERS POPPING OFF:
AMONG MANY PROBLEMS, ONLY ONE MATTERED
There were many reasons the Pacers fell short of their goal, and more particularly, why they fell short of at least getting the Heat in a Game 7 at home in Indianapolis, the stated purpose of the (obscenely) long 82-game NBA regular season. Yet, among all the many reasons Indiana failed, only one truly makes this team a laughingstock.
First, let’s be clear: When a team is almost certain to be substantially overhauled in the coming offseason, far beyond the realm of minor tweaks here and there, it’s reasonable to say that a team proved to be a laughingstock to a certain degree. The Pacers didn’t just lose. They were humiliated in Game 6. Why do the “H-word” and that other loaded term, the “E-word” known as “embarrassment,” deserve to be slapped on the Pacers?
This is where “the one big problem” comes into the picture.
The one big problem with the 2013-2014 Indiana Pacers — the reason they deserve (and will receive) little to no empathy from the American public, maybe even their own fan base in Indianapolis — is that they talked too much.
Eli Wallach’s character in The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly guns down an intruder while soaking in a bathtub. He says after making the kill, “When you want to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.” Wallach’s character was LeBron James, and the Pacers were gunned down precisely because they wasted their time with bluster.
Let’s keep the matter very plain: In sports, there’s a simple and longstanding expectation that when you win big — defined as, at the very least, making the NBA Finals if not winning them — you earn the right to talk to an extra degree. The Pacers and Heat were meeting for the third straight postseason. Indiana had steadily grown in 2012, 2013, and in January of 2014, hoping to beat the Heat this time around. This was a series in which the Pacers had no right to talk. Their speech had to be their level of play on the court. Winning was supposed to be the Pacers’ statement. Getting to and winning a Game 7 at home were supposed to be the Pacers’ most eloquent and lingering words to their rivals from Biscayne Bay.
Instead, the Pacers chirped. At least one person on the roster did one of the following in this series:
* Whined when things didn’t go their way.
* Complained about Vogel.
* Claimed they outplayed the Heat after being behind 94-71 midway through the fourth quarter (Game 4).
* Said that LeBron James had demonstrated “weakness.”
Lance Stephenson naturally became the central embodiment of the Pacers’ immaturity. NBA teams typically have at least one antagonist, and let’s be clear here: Antagonists are good for teams to have. Danny Ainge, Dennis Rodman, Bruce Bowen, Ron Artest (before the name change), and Chris Andersen made championship-level differences for their teams. The championships and Finals appearances, though, are what made them great antagonists.
Stephenson hadn’t won squat, and yet he felt he had arrived as an antagonist.
This is the law of the jungle in elite competitive sports: You talk when you’ve done something, not before. You can say you’ve arrived when you’ve crossed the finish line, at least in your own conference if not in the Finals.
The Pacers should have been humble. They had no reason to be anything other than humble entering this series. Their play was supposed to do the talking.
They chose to run their mouths instead… and they got run… run out of American Airlines Arena and the 2014 playoffs.
That’s the one true problem of the 2013-2014 Indiana Pacers. It’s the problem that deserves to be written on their tombstone, freshly planted into the ground by the Finals-bound Miami Heat.