The final painful and embarrassing indignity for the Indiana Pacers would be getting erased from the playoffs Wednesday on their precious home court; you know, the one the Pacers made such a big deal about all season. That would be, to paraphrase the great hoopology philosopher Lance Stephenson, the ultimate sign of weakness.
These Pacers, our hunch told us all along, are counterfeit contenders, lacking the drive it takes to go the extra mile. They're bringing spitballs to a gunfight in the Eastern Conference finals, and that, along with a mouthy meathead like Stephenson, is making LeBron James "smirk" instead of sweat.
Yes, smirk: An expression that is half-amusing and half-pitiful. Imagine that. LeBron and the Heat, three-time defending champs of the East, aren't even laughing at the Pacers. They're smirking. Which is a lot more disrespectful.
A smirk is usually followed up with a finger-in-the-eye question from the smirker: This all you got?
Well, um, yeah. It's pretty much a wrap at this point. This much-anticipated series was a season in the making and originally designed to either represent the changing of the guard in the East (ha!) or at least give LeBron the most grueling post-season obstacle-course test he was supposed to see, and yet it has denigrated into a one-sided stomping. And if you, basketball fan, are feeling a bit ripped off and deprived, how about the Heat? Think of them. They needed a good run to prepare for the Spurs or Thunder in the NBA Finals and the Pacers, with the exception of Game 1, haven't even amounted to that.
You can praise LeBron and the Heat all you want for assuming a commanding 3-1 lead, delivering a dominant Game 4 and showing no alarming signs of weakness (there's that word again), and sure, that would be understandable. LeBron is getting better and nastier as these weeks go by, while Dwyane Wade is staying injury-free and Miami's defense is suffocating. But this is really on the Pacers. This is on Roy Hibbert and his much too-frequent disappearing acts, and Paul George regressing from an MVP candidate to just a very nice player who hasn't scared anyone, and Stephenson for not walking the walk, and yes, on Larry Bird for failing to put the right missing pieces in place. This is on a Pacers team that was 33-7 in February and then turned meek overnight and swallowed a grapefruit, which is still lodged in their throat.
In years past, championship dreamers like the Pacers always had to slay the bully before getting the chance to taste champagne. Think of the Bulls and Michael Jordan against the Pistons and Isiah Thomas, and LeBron against Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Sometimes you get beat up so much that you reach the point where you say, enough is enough, and finally get over the hump. This was supposed to be the Pacers' Hump Year after taking the Heat to the seven-game limit last season before losing the clincher in Miami. And so the Pacers thought: If we get home-court advantage next season, that'll be the difference, right? Um, not quite.
"He's got to make a decision that at some point in his life, that no matter what, he's not going to lose this fight anymore," said coach Frank Vogel, using the victim-bully analogy. "We're at that point."
What the Pacers haven't done in the year since is grow a few melons. Talent just isn't enough at this stage of the season. You need fortitude, a sense of urgency and a burn to be the best. When you see Hibbert, for example, getting his shot swatted by players five inches shorter and having rebounds ripped from his fingers, do you see a lion or a lamb?
The Pacers lack snarl and swagger; we've seen this lately in big games, during the moment of truth. If only the rest of the Pacers could sip whatever serum that David West lives on, then maybe they wouldn't have stumbled through the second half of the season or nearly got whipped by the Hawks -- the Hawks! -- in the first round. Maybe their hearts wouldn't be questioned so regularly and perhaps the Heat would find themselves in an alley fight. There's plenty of talent in the NBA, and the Pacers certainly have enough on their roster. But not every talented player wants the ball when it counts or knows what to do with it. Not every talented player is willing to bleed for a loose ball. Not every talented player is willing to go the full 48.
Not every talented player is smart enough to know not to call out LeBron in the middle of a series.
When Stephenson made his bulletin-board remark about LeBron stooping to trash talking and a supposed lack of strength, the reaction came quick and harsh from every corner except the one where LeBron's locker is located. That, besides his obvious talent, is what separates LeBron from the rest. He's motivated by the smell of another trophy, not by what a fringe star like Stephenson might think. Notice how LeBron never made a personal goal to go directly after Stephenson in Game 5, as if to prove some meaningless point, and therefore disrupt the Heat's gameplan. LeBron took the bigger-fish-to-fry approach and just made sure the game was won, while punctuating it with a few dunks and, OK, smirks. That's how a championship-driven player responds.
Remember, Stephenson made a crack about Wade's health before the series began, saying he wanted Wade's knees to "buckle" and yet Wade let the comment slide. He didn't fall into the trap of playing a revengeful one-on-one game with Stephenson, and therefore, neither did LeBron.
"We played Boston a lot and they made it more than just basketball," Wade explained. "They beat us in the mental game as well as the physical game. We learned that the only way we were going to beat them is if we beat them playing the game of basketball."
George had two straight sub-par games in the series and then followed up with five turnovers in Game 5. He hasn't been a difference-maker or a handful for the Heat. In the NBA, you go as far as your best player takes you. Stephenson was totally intimidated when he put himself on the griddle in Game 5 and is too unpredictable anyway to rely on.
Hibbert is now whining about his role in the offense and if you put much stock into what he did last season in the playoffs against the Heat -- averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds -- then maybe he'd have a point. Also, Hibbert can be fragile and feel uninvolved if he doesn't get a number of early touches. Problem is, Hibbert is too passive to create his own scoring on put-backs, which could boost his confidence and encourage the Pacers to call his number more often. He's been in a four-month fog, and suddenly he expects the Pacers to feed him the ball?
Also, when the off-season comes, and it's likely just a matter of days, Bird needs to address his point guard position. George Hill dribbles from side to side, instead of attacking the rim, and he's too soft to break down a defense. Therefore, he doesn't get his teammates open looks and easy baskets. While that's not an issue for George or Stephenson, who can create their own shots, Hibbert (scoreless four times in these playoffs) suffers without a pure point guard. How often does Hill require a screen to break free from his man? And when Hibbert plays the high pick-and-roll, the slow-footed center lacks the quickness to roll to the basket for a layup or a jumper to execute the pick-and-pop. He's just a 7-foot-2 man cemented to the free throw area and therefore trapped on a remote island. Trading Kawhi Leonard for Hill wasn't the Pacers' best move, in hindsight. Do the Pacers have the goods to get Rajon Rondo? Bird should find out.
And speaking of Bird, his moves over the last several months have backfired and it's showing. He gave up Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green and a No. 1 for Luis Scola. While Scola has played consistently well off the bench in the playoffs, Plumlee averaged 7.8 rebounds in only 24 minutes for the Suns while Green was the discovery of the year in the NBA. Also: Chris Copeland, signed in the offseason, doesn't get off the bench, nor does Evan Turner, who forced the Pacers to sacrifice Danny Granger, a valued voice in the locker room.
When Vogel searches for relief whenever Hibbert or another starter either falters or needs a breather, he's getting virtually nothing from the bench.
That's the state of the Pacers and this series. After an uplifting Game 1 win, followed by a close shave, the Pacers aren't putting up a fight. Normally you'd simply consider the competition and acknowledge the steep challenge of beating LeBron four times. But this is a troubled Pacers team that hasn't been right since the All-Star break. That's a long time, enough to make you suspect it isn't a mirage or a phase.
"We are going to try and do something that's tough," said West, meaning, beat Miami three times in a row.
Tough? Try next to impossible, based on what we've seen from Indiana, based on the Heat being 13-3 in closeout games during the Big Three era. All that's left is a loss at home, where the Pacers have already taken it on the chin multiple times from likes of the Hawks and the Wizards in the playoffs.
In the end, the team that finished with the best record in the East seems like all the rest of the teams in that watered-down conference: Too weak to muster up enough strength to beat Miami.