There’s peaking at the best possible moment, such as the 2014 Connecticut Huskies, and then there’s doing the exact opposite.
Take the Indiana Pacers for the latter, as they are wishing the NBA Finals were played in January rather than June.
Exiting January with an overall record of 35-10, the Pacers finally were able to look down on the Miami Heat after half a season. Miami (32-13 after January) wasn’t far behind, but held their share of road lapses that had many claiming Indiana as the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference on the sport’s largest stage .
Since the start of February?
LeBron James has led the Heat to a 21-10 record, piling on an historic 61-point performance and a 43-point homecoming in Cleveland along the way. Indiana, on the other hand, has only been able to muster a 18-15 stretch since the start of February. If you didn’t acknowledge those numbers beforehand and only paid attention to the mass media, you would be led to believe the Pacers are a bottom seed in the playoff hunt.
Sometimes things are blown out of proportion. Other times, negative criticism in sports is timely, and hits the nail right on the head.
Right now, it’s difficult to decipher which one resonates with this Pacers group.
After Sunday night’s blowout loss to the Atlanta Hawks, a little of both had time to sink in for the supporters and pessimists. Accumulating the worst half in franchise history — 23 points on 20 percent shooting — the Pacers didn’t lay down to the eight-seeded Hawks, clawing back and using the crowd to motivate their short spurts in the third quarter. They would eventually be knocked over, however, as the Hawks’ 12 3-pointers were unmatched. Indiana, dropping their eighth game in 11 tries, found the loss column once again with a 19-point defeat.
As far as the inability to maintain composure for a full NBA schedule and complete the goal they set in training camp, the condemnation is warranted. Nonetheless, jumping the gun on describing bad blood, friction, and arrogance within the team may be drawing too many conclusions.
This team does appear lost, but the direction needs to be toward the offensive execution as a whole, and not an attempt to depict the Pacers’ locker room as a treacherous place.
Everyone is certainly entitled to their own opinion in today’s society, and that’s never changing. However, it truly helps to have the best feel for the personnel you’re critiquing in order to form accurate stances. Anyone who watches this team on the court obviously can see a loss in offensive connection. With that said, it’s important to not go overboard with statements and illustrate a team’s locker room vibe as World War III in the making. Sense what’s actually happening within the group over and over, and your position will change.
Immediately following games, guys do appear dejected. Bodies are sulking. Conversations aren’t as loud as they were on an early November night when Philadelphia lighting up division rival Chicago was featured on the locker room televisions. Nor are the conversations as joyful as they were following Paul George‘s dunk of the year in a blowout win over a Western Conference powerhouse.
It happens. Every team (yes, we’re pointing at you, Miami) experiences it at one point or another during the “building” stages of an organization. Take us back to the days of 2010-11, where nobody with a brain would’ve bet against LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade bringing home a title after shocking the world. They had their letdowns, much to the point where they weren’t even considered the top team in the conference. Derrick Rose‘s Bulls claimed that title, before Miami had to fight through the adversity and wait until playoff time to prove their hunger. Granted, it’s been difficult to find another team that’s dominated the standings for half a season and fall to 18-15 in their last 33 games, but it’s not to the point of natural disaster. It’s not the time to prematurely award Miami with their conference championship hats.
Much of that can be credited to one simple statement: We have absolutely no idea what Indiana will lay on the table in their first round series.
The individuals within this team’s locker room, however, know exactly what they’re not going to do. They’re not going to bail on one another near the season’s end, not panicking to the point where they play out of their characters.
“We’re just going to keep building, keep working,” David West said after Sunday’s loss. “We’re absolutely not going to get down on one another. I think we’ve got to focus, to lock in. We expect everybody to be engaged and on the same page over this last week and a half. We expect everybody to come ready to work, and start producing.”
Also, before the notion of unhealthy relationships within the team escalates, consider the factor of fatigue.
At 78 games played, the physical wear and tear of an NBA season is often undermined. If the argument against the “excuse” is that each team goes through the same experience, how many teams played each game during the first half of the season with a “must win” mentality? With the Pacers collectively agreeing earlier in the season that the one seed is their main goal for the six month grind, Indiana brought out historic levels of defense during the first 40 games. Nobody was close to Roy Hibbert in terms of Defensive Player of the Year considerations, and George was able to rightfully throw his name into MVP discussions.
Just hearing that makes it seem as if it’s a completely different season nowadays. The physical pressure of being formidable on the defensive end has caught up to their offensive abilities, thus bringing historically bad levels of offense into the picture. In their last 11 games — the 3-8 stretch — the Pacers have scored an average of 83.9 points per game, 12.8 points below their season average of 96.7.
Mentally, it’s becoming a tiring process as well. One should not overlook the fact that, despite what they players are revealing to the media, the thought of the East’s top seed has been flowing through their brains …. each and every day. The returning starting five that walked off the floor in South Beach last summer after a decisive Game 7 has to be replaying that moment in their heads, getting so caught up in pressing for the win, neglecting the process it takes to win on the offensive end. After a while, the worrisome thoughts damage your psyche as a player, and you have to enter reset mode.
“We’re not falling apart,” George said on Sunday. “This is a great group. Many teams have guys who dislike each other. This isn’t one of those teams.”
It wasn’t a shot at the Cleveland Cavaliers for their situation involving Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, but it sure serves a prime example. This Indiana roster is one that Larry Bird and Kevin Pritchard assembled dating back to the 2008 draft, when Hibbert joined the blue and gold as a mature center that still possessed raw offensive skills. Some may even argue he has the same raw skills today. Nonetheless, there hasn’t been a group with as close of a relationship as this team in the last three or four years.
“We have all confidence in this room that we’re going to make a run,” West added. “It may not look like that now, but each and every one of us in this locker room feels like that.”
As the Pacers have fallen out of the lead for the one seed in the past week and are now one full game behind Miami for the coveted spot, West gave a touch of insight that each professional athlete should write down and stick on their locker:
“I don’t think we’ve played well enough to earn it. And you don’t want things you don’t earn.”
The 11-year veteran is fearless, believing this is a small bump in the road and they’ll have themselves back to rare form.
For the sake of West’s reputation and highly respected attitude, he gets my benefit of the doubt. That can’t be said of others that already issued severe conclusions about Indiana.
Shane Young is an NBA credentialed writer for 8 Points, 9 Seconds and HoopsHabit.com. For all Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, or general NBA coverage, follow @YoungNBA and @HoopsHabit on Twitter. You can contact Shane via email: [email protected]
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