By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
INDIANAPOLIS – Be careful what you wish for. Someone might snatch it away. That’s not quite how the saying goes, but it’s the queasy version that applies now to the Indiana Pacers.
All season long, from back in training camp through the many trips and back-to-backs, despite the physical dings and emotional drain of trying to go wire-to-wire, the Pacers had staked out the No. 1 playoff berth in the Eastern Conference as their goal within a goal. They get that, and any Game 7 against their rivals from Miami would be played in Indiana.
It was a marvelous carrot for an 82-game schedule that wields some serious sticks. A rabbit to chase and, once claimed, to flex. A fix for what slipped away last year, when the Pacers did so many things right in Game 6 against the Heat, only to step on that plane to South Florida for one more.
And then, on the final night of the season’s fifth month, it was gone. With the thud of Indiana’s 103-77 embarrassment against the San Antonio Spurs Monday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, combined with Miami’s home victory over Toronto, the top of the East looks like this:
1. Miami, 51-22, .699
2. Indiana, 52-23, .693
The Pacers just hit the snooze button on their own nightmare.
“Good for them. We don’t deserve it,” center Roy Hibbert said in a home dressing room that was more demoralized than angry. “We’ll see, in the playoffs. But we’ve got to figure things out. Miami is a good team. They’ve had a couple hiccups themselves. But we don’t deserve that No. 1 seed.”
Indiana forward David West, who hinted at a variety of basketball and chemistry issues ailing his team now, said: “We’ve got to concede that we haven’t played basketball well enough to deserve the top spot. That’s pretty much it. We haven’t played well enough. We haven’t been a good-looking basketball team for quite some time now. That’s on the guys in this locker room.”
It was only their third loss at home since Feb. 1 and their fifth at the Fieldhouse this season (33-5) but it was the worst one by far. Giving up 107 points? Very unPacers-like, with the Spurs free to score 42 in the paint and hit 8-for-17 3-pointers. Scoring a mere 77? All too Pacers-like. This was the fifth time in six games they failed to crack 80. The last team to do that, as noted by the Elias Sports Bureau, was the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, who went 7-59 (.106) in that post-lockout season to set an NBA record for lowest winning percentage.
Not “a good-looking basketball team?” West was given another crack at his description of the Pacers at the moment. “We’re probably the most downtrodden, 50-plus win team in the history of the game,” he said. “We watch film from a few months ago, we don’t even recognize ourselves.”
Said Hibbert: “We should all go to group therapy. … We’ve been spiraling. Now we’re splintering a little bit.”
Pegging the start of swoon seems easier than explaining or solving it. Point guard George Hill claimed the mojo dipped about two weeks before All-Star weekend. Indiana won a few close ones, then dropped two of three right before the break; it is 12-11 since then. Hill had a heated timeout exchange with backcourt mate Lance Stephenson in the second half Monday, but chalked it up to “wanting to win.” Stephenson likened it to “brothers” squabbling but still being family.
But West sure seemed to be catching himself, declining to address the stress this stretch has put on what had been been Indiana’s strength, its bonds and chemistry at least in the good times.
“There’s things I’m not going to speak on, but we’ve just got to figure it out,” the veteran forward said. “We’ve got to change some things internally, inside the locker room, before we can even consider talking about winning and getting back the trust.
“As a group, we didn’t have the energy or the mindset to compete with that team tonight.”
Sure, that was part of Monday’s mess. When your offense is as sick as Indiana’s, facing the Spurs goes against every possible doctor’s order, especially if he’s named Erving or Rivers. San Antonio has won 18 in a row with its meticulous offensive execution and stifling work at the other end. The Spurs held their hosts to a season-low 26 field goals and zero fast-break points. They got 17 points off 12 Pacer turnovers just in the second half. Kawhi Leonard was so up in Paul George’s business all night, George would have had more elbow room flying middle seat, coach.
“We’re not playing the game the right way right now,” George said after scoring 16 points on 5-for-13 shooting and, later, citing a severe lack of screen-setting. “We’re not playing for one another. It’s tough to score on any team in this league when you’re trying to do it against the whole team.
“San Antonio is the perfect example. It’s hard to guard them because they move the ball, they share the ball. And it’s regardless of who’s shooting. They want the best shot on offense. That’s the problem we’re having right now.”
Keep in mind, Indiana just flopped over the weekend in games at Washington and Cleveland (minus Kyrie Irving), so no pedigree is required nowadays to pester the Pacers. Still, things went so badly Monday that criticisms and accusations that had lift before the game were dive-bombing and barrel-rolling by night’s end. Such as:
- A couple of the Indiana players need to toughen up, with Hibbert and George hinted at as the likeliest culprits.
- One or two of them want too much to be “the man,” without regard for the game’s actual outcome. George was fingered in our man David Aldridge‘s Morning Tip chat with Hibbert this week and Stephenson surely has tendencies to dominate the ball. The team’s high number of contested shots suggests that someone or somebodies occasionally force things, considering how many capable scores Indiana actually has.
- They got too satisfied by their blistering start and haven’t had anyone, including coach Frank Vogel, hammering on them enough to keep them humble and hungry.
Well, guess what: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, while minding his own business, spanked the Pacers a little by extension, simply by talking about his team’s historic disregard for the No. 1 seed. What has loomed so large for Indiana all year – and now is like a psychological sword hanging over their heads – didn’t matter one bit through 17 consecutive playoff appearances, five Finals trips and four NBA championships in the Duncan/Popovich era.
“Never,” Popovich said Monday evening. “This will sound really strange to you, but we’ve never had any numerical or positioning goals – ever. Not one time. We’ve never talked about it the entire time I’ve been here.
“The only thing we do is talk about trying to be the best team we can be come playoff time. That’s what we harp on, period. We don’t talk about anything else.”
Then there are the Pacers, who gave Miami – mildly disinterested as the two-time defending champions navigated through the regular season – something they could steal away, turning the screws some on these wannabes.
“It puts us in reality now,” said George. “We’re really missing out on an opportunity right now.”
So what’s the first step for the Pacers now to begin digging out, with seven games that include Miami, Oklahoma City and a trip to Toronto?
“If we knew that, I think we’d be a lot better than we are right now,” George said, appreciating the conundrum. “I think that’s the first step – identifying it.”
As George spoke a couple of times with reporters – with a long, solitary bowed-head-in-hands moment in between – a self-help book rested against the wall of the open stall next to his. You Can Make It Happen – A Nine-Step Plan. The author in pensive pose on the cover: Steadman Graham.
It looked uncracked, which might not be a bad thing. What ails the Pacers might be better addressed on his gal pal’s couch, if only it still were in business. Or on Dr. Phil’s.