May 30, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) reacts from the bench during the second half in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Indiana Pacers: Bitter End, and Uncertain Future

There’s one thing you don’t do in sports.

You never bet against a team with two menacing superstars, and one that’s on a mission for history.  I did, but only because the Indiana Pacers were on track to receive what they always wanted:  a Game 7 in their home building, in front of their sick, unhappy fans that haven’t been able to attend the Finals since 2000.

The Miami Heat, led by the second greatest player of this era, ousted Indiana in six games, putting a complete mockery on the Pacers.  “You wanted a Game 7 back in Indianapolis?  Fine, we’ll just down you in six.”

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May 30, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat players Dwyane Wade (middle) and LeBron James (right) lead the bench in celebration during the second half in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs against the Indiana Pacers at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James entered a new stratosphere of history last night, but the amount of stock people are putting on the four straight Finals appearances is a bit much.  The Leastern Eastern Conference has been nothing short of deplorable this season, and Miami’s trip to the grand stage has been a cakewalk.  Indiana posed the only true threat, and they were unstable on the court since March 4th’s loss to Golden State.

Nothing should be taken away from Miami.  To achieve something, you have to earn it.  You have to finish the deal, regardless of the circumstances.  They did so in the East, but don’t slap LeBron’s name next to Michael Jordan just because Chicago never appeared in four straight Finals.  It’s two separate eras, varying competition levels, and there’s a wide gap in the physicality allowed in the 1990’s compared to that of today.

James will propel himself to top five territory soon, and it’s inspiring to watch from any viewpoint.

As for the Pacers, there’s a range of people just glad for the season to be a wrap.  This team didn’t deserve to represent any conference in the Finals, and they haven’t given us any reason to believe that will change next season.

Indiana is a likable bunch.

Paul George has one of the best attitudes in today’s game, his performances just rarely support the words that come out of his mouth.  Or others, for that matter, that say he’s the best two-way player in the game.  False.  That player is about 700 miles south, resting on the beach.

George is locked up in contract with the Pacers in the max-deal that gives him $90 million.  The only steps moving forward are the same steps James, Kevin Durant, and Kobe Bryant had to go through in the first five seasons of their career.  Working harder than anyone else, getting the mindset that you’re tired of being second.  After posting the incredible 21-point fourth quarter in Game 5, George started off Game 6 by just scoring one point on 0-of-6 shooting in the first half.  Granted, he finished with 29 points and eight rebounds, none of that should be credited.  40 of the 48 minutes of Game 6 were part of garbage time, and Miami was on cruise control defensively after signing their check to the Finals.

Lance Stephenson, love him or hate him, was the only lighter the Pacers had to spark any flame.  Am I the only one that absolutely praised the face touch he gave to LeBron in the first half?  It’s all competitive nature, and it wasn’t out of line.  It lets the competition know you’re there, and the desire to still fight despite trailing 33-18 is the biggest takeaway.

Re-sign that guy, immediately.

Letting Stephenson walk away to a larger paycheck would keep Indiana in a position where they can flirt with different options for years to come, but there’s other ways of doing that.  You need Lance, you need that edge that isn’t afraid to step up to the plate.  George Hill, the starting point guard that doesn’t even like his job title, should be dealt this offseason.

It goes beyond the fact that the Pacers ranked 27th in the league in assists during the regular season (20.1 per game).  By the way, that joins the company of Detroit, Brooklyn, Utah, New York, Sacramento, and Phoenix, who have been foreign to the term “title contender” since 2010.  In the midst of closely contested games, this team has no pure playmakers, not a single person you can consistently rely on with the ball in their hands.  When the closest asset to that is your shooting guard that has only started for two years, there’s an issue.

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Hill is a solid, slightly above average guard when he’s playing off-ball, in shooting guard situations.  Sometimes, he may lose the shooting touch, but it’s partly due to his inability to create his own shot off the dribble.  It catch-and-shoot spots, he’s able to score.  Against Miami and Washington, he was effective when Stephenson and George created plays for him.  Even so with C.J. Watson, who played alongside Hill for stretches.  Watson is ultimately the better point guard, but defensive liabilities prevent him from being on the floor more.

Larry Bird needs to be running the phone lines this summer.  We understand he takes a lot of pride in the roster he created and built, but Miami has proven three straight years that their structure isn’t going to work.  That won’t magically change next season, unless changes are made to the starting core.  Find yourself a point guard that you feel comfortable with in halfcourt situations when you need a score.  There were too many instances in this series — and the playoffs in general — where Indiana had their opponent on the ropes, and failed to stomp the final foot in their throat.

Game 3 of this series is a prime example.

Holding a 15-point lead in the first quarter, and completely dying — thanks to eight turnovers since nobody can handle the ball or make accurate passes — cost them the game.  It cost Indiana the series, as they could have continued their pace and scored on those empty trips, putting Miami down 2-1.  Heading back home with a 2-2 split and taking Game 5 (as they did), would have given them a Game 7 at home.  It’s the small things, and that’s what Indiana can’t master.  Not yet.  Rajon Rondo can’t be thrilled about Boston’s rebuilding, whether he wants to admit that’s the process or not.

Indiana would be foolish to continue this scheme they feel can beat Miami.  It can’t, and never will.

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May 26, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) reacts during a timeout against the Miami Heat in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

There’s also a 7’2″ issue to tend to.

Roy Hibbert has set a new standard in the NBA this season.  From being praised to the level of comparing him to historically great defensive figures, to chastising him on a daily basis.  Hibbert has become the example of “What centers aren’t supposed to do” just from his downfall through March, and in these laughable playoffs.

Teams around the league, desperate ones, will believe they can make a difference in Hibbert’s offense.  They all still love his defensive presence, and you’d be crazy to think offers won’t be on the table for him.  His contract that hovers the $15 million range is ludicrous, yes, but there’s too many teams with a lack of defensive skill that it may not matter one bit.

If Hibbert is dealt by Larry Bird this summer, the defensive identity this team has formed since 2010 could hit the wall.  However, George and David West are anchors in their own right on the defensive end, and there’s options out there that Indiana could receive in a package deal that could complement them just as well.

Evan Turner will be out of town since he’s hitting the free agent market after fooling us with a few eyebrow-raising performances in March, and that’s a great thing.  The Pacers’ bench, which ranked 28th in scoring of all benches (25 points per game) needs a formidable scoring big other than Luis Scola.  Scola’s finesse type of play is great for pick-and-pop sets and clear outs when he’s in the post against a smaller defender, but there’s no power, and no rebounding on either end.  We should all hang up the thought of Ian Mahinmi ever being able to score, and Andrew Bynum has been disposed in the waste can more times than Cleveland’s won the lottery.

In one similar aspect, the Pacers are in the same boat as San Antonio, there’s just a different captain.  The Spurs look at everyone on their roster, from top to bottom, and get huge contributions regardless of the lack of skill.  Indiana sure owns a lack of skill off the bench, but they get nothing from it.

It comes down to coaching, and the mass majority of people the believe Frank Vogel should be gone …. are not completely wrong.  It’s the same situation that many teams face in sports.  Sometimes, you just need a new voice, a new way of doing things.  Vogel hasn’t been around long, but the roster has already adopted his defensive mindset.  The next step is improving the lackadaisical offense, and having a coach that gives his confidence to players off the bench.  More importantly, one that will work with his bench unit on a consistent basis to improve them as players and individuals, and complement his starters.  Vogel doesn’t do that, at least with this bunch.

The coaching answer could be tough to find.  Vogel will probably remain in place.  Although, they wouldn’t have to look very far for a new alternative.  He was only 50 feet away in the East Finals, calling the game with the commentating crew.

Mark Jackson needs a new home, and Indiana needs a new system.

Kill two birds with one stone, and maybe have a chance to execute the defending champions.

 

 

Tags: David West Indiana Pacers Lance Stephenson Miami Heat Paul George Roy Hibbert

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