Quiet. Stunned. Disappointed. Disbelief. And perhaps the most noticeable of them all was ultimately defeated, perhaps to the point of a feeling of helplessness. Spend ten to fifteen minutes inside the Indiana Pacers locker room after their 117-92 loss to the Miami Heat, the knockout blow that sent Indiana packing after losing the Eastern Conference Finals four to two, and all of these emotions will come across from the members of the Pacers organization.
Because for the first time in three seasons, years that ended with Indiana walking with defeat as LeBron James and the gang ultimately head to the NBA Finals, the Pacers may have finally swallowed the bitter pill that perhaps made them competitive against the “White Hot” Heat in the first place. For the first time ever, the blue and gold have come to the conclusion that their best just isn’t good enough against the reigning four-time Eastern Conference champions.
“I thought with all the stuff we dealt with, we still finished on top of the East,” said a defeated-sounding David West.
“We talked about it since training camp, and getting back to the Eastern Conference Finals in being a top-four team, competing for the chance to compete for a championship. And we fell short to a great team. We are in the midst of an unbelievable run by the Heat, and they are being lead by the best guy on the planet. And we can’t beat him. Obviously as good as we felt about ourselves this year, it just wasn’t good enough again.”
Perhaps though, deep down inside, Indiana knew it all along. After all, the message from day one was clear for the Pacers franchise. To be successful in the 2013-14 season, the Indiana Pacers had to guarantee that game-seven of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat would be held at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. After losing to the eventual champs 99-76 in game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals last season, the Pacers made it clear day in and day out that every single regular season game was important due to the overall standings.
The season which followed was cut into two halves. First, their was the season that saw the Pacers as the top team in the East, that saw Paul George and Roy Hibbert as All Stars, and gave the world the playful and entertaining version of Lance Stephenson. The second half of the season, which came because it’s just too hard to have a must-win intensity over an 82-game season, gave us a Pacers team that struggled to get along, played poorly down the stretch to the point they nearly blew the number-one seed, and left fans across the sport of basketball wondering if they could get out of the first round.
“We hit a wall for one,” said George on the team’s struggles down the stretch of the season. “And then the pressure of playing at the level we were supposed to be playing at, and I think we were getting pulled from multiple directions from dealing with success early. At some point in the season, we felt we could turn on a switch and play when we needed to play. And it’s hard to do that when teams are coming after you.”
After two rounds of futility in the playoffs, which included a seven-game series against a below-.500 Atlanta Hawks squad and a 4-2 second round against the not ready for primetime Washington Wizards, the Indiana Pacers eventually got what they wanted all along. They had their match-up against the two-time defending champions, home-court advantage, and even a 1-0 jump-start to the series once the Miami Heat showed up to game one with seemingly no urgency whatsoever. Everything was coming up gold swagger, all the way up to 5:33 in the fourth quarter of game two, when a Roy Hibbert jumper put the Pacers up 75-72 with the home crowd roaring. The only problem, of course, was a minute before when Dwyane Wade and Paul George collided for a loose ball, which ended with Wade’s knees knocking Paul George into concussion la-la land that left him blurry-eyed and blacked out for the remainder of the game. An okay basketball player by the name of LeBron James capitalized for ten points down the stretch, Wade added another eight, and Miami ended Indiana’s home-court advantage with a game they stole on the home-court Indiana had badly wished for.
Two losses at American Airlines Arena later, and a victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse only because LeBron James was limited to reserves-minutes due to foul trouble, and the stage was set for game six Friday night for the Indiana Pacers. Down 3-2, they were entering the building they had wanted to avoid since day one in a closeout game.
Single-handedly, Lebron James from the get-go enforced his will on a Pacers defense that was non-existent from the start. In a blink of an eye, LeBron James was torching defenders and attacking the hoop with nobody ultimately contesting him, was hitting jumpers, and by time he assisted Shane Battier for a three to end the first quarter, James had scored 11 to help Miami take a 24-13 lead. And say what you want about the Miami Heat’s fans. Yes, the first five rows are probably filled with beautiful models that have sugar-daddies. Yes, some of them were late-showing to the game, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the game really is a social-status scene to show off who is sitting where. But when that crowd gets going, and the “Seven-Nation Army” chant is in full force, you don’t want any part of that crowd. And as the Pacers showed Friday night, they didn’t either.
Well, there was one Indiana Pacer who seemed up to the challenge in the first half, and that guy goes by the name of Lance Stephenson. Around the city of Miami Stephenson’s antics towards LeBron James, including the roughhouse defense, the flopping, and of course the infamous blowing into James’ ear, ultimately made Stephenson public-enemy number-one. And despite Stephenson’s claims that he respects James as the best player on the planet and that he is just trying to do whatever he can to help his team win, Stephenson was showered with boos from the time he was introduced to every time he touched the ball on the court. How did he respond? By aggravating James some more, and ultimately hitting a three-pointer in James’ mug, which lead to James’ “accidentally” making contact with Stephenson’s face in the second quarter. Stephenson went back and gave James a love-tap to the face, and the two had to be separated.
For a moment, it seemed that the good side of Stephenson’s competitive-nature was the only thing the Pacers had going for them. Until a loose-ball found Stephenson and Norris Cole chasing after the same ball, Cole getting to the ball first, and Stephenson “making a play” for the ball, but in reality just smacking Cole in the face for a dirty-basketball play. A flagrant foul was called on Stephenson, and despite 11 points midway through the second quarter, Stephenson never scored another basket.
“No regrets,” said Stephenson when asked if he would change anything about his play in the series. “I think all of us played hard, and showed our hearts. We took game-by-game, and they were just a better team and they won.”
Meanwhile, the Miami Heat hit full-throttle and raised their game both offensively and defensively to a place the Indiana Pacers could only dream of being. Through the first half Paul George (29 points) had only scored one point, while James and Wade attacked the basket at will and made the most of every opportunity the Pacers gave them. Down low by the rim, Chris Anderson was pushing Roy Hibbert around like a rag doll, finishing for nine points and ten rebounds off the bench with non-stop hustle plays that the Pacers center seemed too slow to match. And when Hibbert wasn’t getting punished by Anderson, Chris Bosh was either hitting jumpers away from the basket or cutting down-low for easy hoops that eventually lead to him scoring 25 points on the night.
“It has to be a learning experience I guess,” said a quiet Hibbert after the loss. “It feels horrible to lose.”
And with another uneventful contest for George Hill, his lone most memorable highlight came when for the second game in a row, he failed to go up towards the rim hard and got blocked cleanly by James himself. Add in a 13 point night for Rashard Lewis, the unsung hero of game five for the Miami Heat that most figured only had a good game because of LeBron James foul trouble, and the Pacers were stuck in a route of epic proportions.
The written word may seem a little harsh on the Pacers, but if you didn’t watch the game, you have to understand that the Pacers were literally down 86-49 after a James jumper that eventually lead LeBron to finishing with 25 points and six assists. Friday was as much of a nightmare as one could imagine, one the Pacers wanted to avoid all along. But with failing to protect home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals with that game two loss, their whole regular season’s work was washed away, and they found themselves once again spinning out of control and heading towards an ugly crash that ended their season once again. And though there is no shame to losing to perhaps one of the greatest players in history of the league, there is probably something that needs to be said when you fully recognize it.
“It’s bitterly disappointing to fall short of our goals,” said Pacers Head Coach Frank Vogel as he shook his head. “And it’s bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row. But we are 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.”
After the game, there was the likes of James, Wade, Bosh, and every Miami Heat player that Indiana fans have loved to despite, celebrating with the Eastern Conference Finals trophy. They sent the message loud and clear to Indiana on Friday night, that despite all hopes and thoughts of improvement, Indiana was never close to being on their level of basketball talent. In fact, now that Miami has closed-out Indiana three straight series in a row with multiple victories that lead to embarrassing Pacers defeats, it’s safe to say that this isn’t really a rivalry after all. The truth is hard sometimes when you have to face it dead-on.
Now Indiana must go into the offseason with questions on how to fix all of this, but the way to head is ultimately unclear. The biggest question of course, is what to do with free agent Lance Stephenson? Can you afford to give Stephenson, who on one end puts up the stats of a border-line All-Star, but makes boneheaded plays from time-to-time and plays with such a competitive emotion that it often gets him in trouble. Can the Pacers afford to invest how expensive Stephenson can be, especially if another team gets desperate and drives his price up? After the loss Stephenson said he wants to be back with the team, but after the game Paul George gave a quote that seems to 100% back Stephenson, but ESPN has stirred it up in a different direction. I’ll let you decide.
“I mean I don’t know,” said Paul George. “That’s ultimately for Larry, Kevin, and them to decide. It would be great. We came to this league together, and it would be great for us to continue our journey together. But he’s played a huge year this whole season and this postseason. It’s definitely put pressure on us to make decisions going forward with Lance.”
Next you have to fully decide, is Frank Vogel the type of coach that can push this team to the next level? Yes, the Pacers have improved every single year under him, and two straight Eastern Conference Finals is a pretty impressive feat. But didn’t the Pacers seem to flounder down the stretch due to in-house problems? And at what point does Vogel’s defensive mindset hinder the Pacers, especially after another year in which the offense at times look inept? And lastly, when will Vogel be able to get the most out of his bench players? For all the great things Vogel has done with the franchise, and the pros greatly outweigh the cons, one must wonder if perhaps Vogel will enter the 2014-15 season on a short least, or maybe not even one at all.
Then you have to take a look at the rest of the roster. How can the Pacers make Evan Turner a dependable player on an everyday basis? What do you do with Luis Scola’s struggles on defense, and is his offensive output enough to cover it up? Is George Hill, and his expensive contract, the right fit as point guard for this team or is a more true point guard needed? What can you expect from Roy Hibbert, following a year in which half the season he was an All-Star, and the other half he played like a back-up center? What options are out there to ultimately improve this team?
It would be harsh to say that this Pacers season was a failure, especially with 56-wins, the number-one seed, and of course just being two-wins shy of the franchise’s second NBA Finals berth. But when thousands of Miami Heat fans are wearing white, chanting “Woah oh oh oh oh oh”, and LeBron James is making defeat of the Pacers look easy, it’s hard to say that the team took a leap forward either. And while the Pacers try to figure that out, the Heat will be going for a three-peat starting on June 5th.
In the end, one team wanted to host a game seven. The other team made sure it never happened.