The Indiana Pacers finally reached the point when they no longer saw the point in continuing to fight, when the work required to accomplish their season-long goal of hosting the two-time defending champion Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals far exceeded their desire or capabilities.
By the time they arrived in Miami for Friday night’s Game 6, needing one more win to extend a season that had gone from promising to problematic, the Pacers were spent physically, emotionally and mentally. Confusing disappearances by Roy Hibbert, wild rumors about locker room bickering, Paul George’s off-court drama, and even more bizarre on-court behavior by Lance Stephenson culminated with an all-out surrender at American Airlines Arena.
Indiana caved in a manner that was very unbecoming for a team that earned the conference’s top seed. The Pacers trailed by 26 points at halftime and 37 in the third quarter before losing to Miami, 117-92. But the white-flag-waving defeat was also appropriate for a team that spent a full season bluffing about being a contender, huffing and puffing about how it was ready to dethrone LeBron James, and blowing down its own house once the moment arrived.
“In order for us to beat this team, we’ve got to play like champions,” George told reporters in Miami on Friday. “More times than not, we didn’t do so.”
The disconcerting finish leads to a round of questions the Pacers had very little interest in addressing and clumsily tried to answer after losing to Miami for the third straight year. Indiana was more competitive in previous postseason encounters, when it was a likable underdog earning the respect of a team that was controversially built to win championships with an all-star trio.
Two years ago in the conference semifinals, the Pacers had Chris Bosh rushing back from an abdominal strain and Dwyane Wade shouting at Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra and seeking counsel from his college coach, Tom Crean. They pushed the Heat to seven games in the conference finals last year, when George emerged from obscurity and became a star after James anointed him with a hand slap at half court.
After each loss the past two seasons, the Pacers looked like a team that was edging closer to becoming a possible rival to Miami. On Friday, that belief proved to be a mirage – even for the players in Indiana’s locker room.
“We can’t beat them,” Pacers forward David West told reporters in Miami after the game. “Honestly, as good as we felt about ourselves this year, it wasn’t good enough again.”
The Pacers became a default threat to the Heat because the East kept getting worse while James became more sublime. Chicago, which lost to Miami in the 2011 conference finals, has been undone three straight postseasons by Derrick Rose’s repeated knee problems. Boston, which lost to Miami in the 2012 conference finals, became too old and eventually broke up, with what remained of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett moving on to Brooklyn.
Indiana won the series opener against Miami and appeared to regain its confidence from a late-season slide until Wade’s left knee collided with the back of George’s head, giving him a concussion and leading to a fourth-quarter collapse in Game 2. That loss was basically the end of the series, because Indiana went to Miami and lost the will to compete. George saved the Pacers in Game 5 by scoring 37 points, but his performance was overshadowed by Stephenson blowing in James’s face and sneaking into the Heat’s huddle.
Stephenson’s act was played out like Norris Cole’s high-top fade haircut — and that was before Stephenson picked up a flagrant foul in Game 6 for smacking Cole in the face while chasing down a loose ball, and when he decided to put his hand on James’s face. Miami was too busy handing out a butt-whipping to be concerned with Stephenson’s behavior in the series clincher.
George didn’t exactly give the most ringing endorsement to bring back Stephenson, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
“I mean, I don’t know,” George said, pausing when asked if he wanted Stephenson back. “That’s for Larry [Bird, the Pacers’ president], Kevin [Pritchard, the general manager], for them to decide. It would be great. We came into this league together. It would be great for us to continue our journey together.”
Indiana faces some tough decisions, not only with Stephenson but in determining whether the team will ever be good enough to experience a breakthrough. Stephenson is 23. George just turned 24. Hibbert is 28 and George Hill are 28. West is 33 and looked like he was tired of being the only adult in the room after Friday’s loss.
Bird tried to address his team’s shortcomings with some midseason moves that all backfired, from signing Andrew Bynum and his bad knees to trading Danny Granger for Evan Turner in a deal that turned a 41-13 team into a mediocre one.
The Bulls were the last team to lose in conference finals in consecutive seasons, falling to the eventual champion Pistons in 1989 and 1990. Chicago went on to win the next three NBA championships, but it had Michael Jordan.
The Pacers gave George a maximum contract but he has yet to show if he is a marquee talent or a complementary player after fading from being an early MVP candidate and a player fans voted into the All-Star Game. The answer to that question will determine if Indiana turns out to be more than a irritating flirt.
George also realized his newfound fame magnified his missteps. This season, George was involved in a paternity suit and and became the fodder for gossip Web sites when he was rumored to have been ‘catfished’ for sending pictures to person posing as someone else.
Hibbert dominated the Heat inside last postseason, making up for an uneven regular season in which he struggled to live up the maximum contract that he signed the previous summer. This year, Hibbert became an unwanted footnote when he had four scoreless games in the postseason, the most for any player in a season in which he made the all-star team.
The Pacers wanted to follow the old Detroit model for building a championship-caliber team without the benefit of one of two best players in the NBA. But the often-overlooked aspect of the five-as-one Pistons team that upset the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 Finals is that Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant were done playing with each other.
Miami appears to be more unified than ever before, with the uncertainty of the upcoming offseason creating more appreciation for what it stands to accomplish in possibly becoming the fourth franchise to win three straight NBA titles.
Indiana, on the other hand, was the team that was fractured. George had to take Hibbert and Hill fishing to show that the team was unified and to get the struggling big man going against the Washington Wizards. It worked, as the Pacers survived a team that wasn’t ready for the conference finals. In the first round, the Pacers needed seven games to beat a grossly inferior Atlanta Hawks team that was missing its best player, Al Horford.
The Pacers battled so hard to hold on to the top seed, and then to fend of the Wizards and the Hawks, that they wore themselves out. Miami was never concerned about home-court advantage — its first two trips to the NBA Finals came as the No. 2 seed — and past experience gave James, Wade and Bosh the confidence that the Heat could win under any circumstance.
Indiana became an easy pushover as it continued to compete with two teams – the Heat and itself. The Game 7 that the Pacers spent all season playing for never came, because they decided that they didn’t really want it anyway.
“It’s bitterly disappointing to fall short of our goals, and 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,” said Vogel, whose own future is unsettled with the team sputtering to the finish. “You just have to go into the offseason with the mind-set that we’re going to reload, and we have a core, a system, a culture that’s going to give us a chance every year. We’ve got to make whatever adjustments we have to make to come back and be here again next year.”