There’s a championship celebration. There’s hanging your head in disappointment, walking off the court in an NBA Finals loss.
Then, there’s what the Indiana Pacers experienced in the Eastern Conference Finals. Whatever the basketball gods want to name it, “bitter disgust” would only understate the mangling they were a part of.
All season long — mainly from November to February — the Pacers were praised. Miami hit their speed bumps, many of which launched them 30 feet in the air. The Heat were never wrongly written off, but the Eastern Conference transformed into another team’s kingdom, with Paul George leading his empire to a 39-10 record. Miami’s first 49 games weren’t as impressive, collecting a 35-14 record, and everything looked disturbing. Dwyane Wade was missing back-to-backs, LeBron was having to start the year shooting 60 percent from the field just to keep them over that 30-win plateau.
Indiana cruised, because of their defense.
That stifling, rim-fortifying defense that hovered around a defensive rating of 86-89 for the first half of the season. Indiana did become the Pacers, as they were pacing themselves to historical significance with their ability to stop guys in the paint.
Even as the roof caved in and Larry Bird issued the first face-palms of the year (early March), Indiana kept the defense at a better level than 90 percent of the league.
It was the offense that chucked them into a scare for the number one seed. If it weren’t for the four straight losses that forced everyone to panic to begin March — added to the three straight losses to end the month — there would’ve been no discussion for homecourt advantage.
The personal issues haunted these Pacers. From Paul George’s physical relationships, all the way to fist fights with Sir Lancelot and a bench player nobody loved.
These guys acted like someone stole their seat at the 2nd grade lunch table.
“Some selfish dudes in here,” Hibbert mumbled after a March 31 loss to Washington. Yes, that’s the same 7’2″ monster that gave us Hall-of-Fame numbers during March. 9.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.8 blocks per game on 42.2 percent shooting really set the bar high for centers watching at the collegiate level. Clowning aside, that wasn’t even Hibbert’s worst month of the season, if you want to consider half of April one of the regular season months.
In the six games Indiana’s $58 million center played in April, Hibbert took 51 shots — all from various locations. He connected on 12 of them. 12. That’s 23.5 percent from the field, for any non-math majors. And, if you are a math nerd, you can evaluate how efficiently Hibbert is living up to that extortionate contract. Guys that are earning $14.5 million per year aren’t the ones prancing around as laughing stocks of the league, being the butt end of jokes, and being a cause for the loss of momentum after the All-Star break.
Hibbert, with his All-Defensive Second Team selection this season, is one of the league’s top four stoppers, from my perspective. When he wants to, and when he’s not letting his offensive struggles stand in the way, Hibbert can cause hell for even the league’s best athlete (LeBron James) at the rim.
As a unit, the Pacers have no problem stopping their opposition. Games 3, 4, and 6 in South Beach during the Conference Finals were out of the norm, because these two teams always play closely contested, relatively low-scoring affairs. Miami was just on planet of the apes, and the Pacers were merely the bananas they feasted on.
Seriously, nobody in the Western Conference was taking down that Miami team showing up in late May. Not even those Popovich-led Spurs that caught fire and drew tons of “BANG!” moments from Mike Breen. Wade was flashing back to the 2012 playoffs all over again vs. Indiana, and it wasn’t possible for the lackadaisical Vogel offense to stop the bleeding.
Throughout the regular season, you can’t make a powerful argument for ANY other team being more lopsided on offense/defense:
But, on the flip side, Bird and General Manager Kevin Pritchard need to view these comparisons, and fill out a roster for next season that can …. well, score the rock.
Their perimeter defense even shined through, due to George’s inhuman wing defense on opposing team’s best player. Kevin Durant seems to be one of the first that will tell you how impactful George can be. Ask the MVP. Indiana stopping entry passes, and limiting fast breaks, helped them allow just 18.6 assists per night — best in the league. While that was well below NBA-average, their offensive sharing of the ball and finding good looks, wasn’t. 20.1 assists per game isn’t typically standard for an offense, and the Pacers ranked 27th in that department.
What’s another facet that most championship caliber teams thrive in?
3-point shooting, spreading that court wide open, and actually running sensible plays for long-range shooters. The two best 3-point shooting teams of the 2014 Playoffs? How about your two finalists, San Antonio (40.9 percent) and Miami (39.6 percent).
During the regular season, Vogel and the Pacers were allergic to finding the outside rhythm. Not only could they not hit water if they fell out of a boat, but they didn’t get nearly as many quality attempts as majority of the league. 18.8 3-pointers per game was, yet again, below league average, and that’s why their offense was ultimately sneezed at. But, they stayed alive and maintained that 56-win resume due to their heckling on the perimeter — only allowing 19 outside shots per game.
It worked only one way for this Pacers team, and it bit them in the behind during the Playoffs. But that’s what they live for; the ridiculously great defense.
Chris Copeland was as much of a factor last season as the hot dog vendors at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and it became sad to watch. Up close and personal with the team for most of the year, I couldn’t fathom any reasoning for not testing out Copeland for more minutes. Sure, his defensive ball pressure and knowledge on rotations will never be All-NBA worthy, but that’s why you ingrained it into everyone else’s head …. right? Were they that bolted on defense that Vogel didn’t want any experiment to mess it up?
Seems head-scratching, since you’re the ones trying to chase down the champion. You’re the hunters, not the hunted. Things can’t remain the same. Miami loves that, and lives for it, knowing they’ve beaten you three straight years in the postseason. If that doesn’t call for a little “change”, I may need the newest Webster’s Dictionary to see if the definition was altered.
How do you think Bird and the Pacers feel now?
With LeBron taking the place of a kid in a candy store, picking any option he wants for this summer?
“Dear God, make LeBron a bird, so he can fly far … far far away from here!” This is their prayer, as we speak. Whether it be Houston, Hollywood, or Phoenix, the Pacers need LeBron to high-tail it out West. It would be the first time James has switched conferences, and it would lower the competition level for Vogel and company. Face it, it’s what they need when King James is standing in their way.
Returning to Cleveland, opting in with Miami, or joining forces with the Bulls, would all keep the Pacers as a second fiddle in the East. You may think their defensive strategies would be enough to overtake a James-to-Cavs move, but he’s had the Pacers’ number since making these Finals runs. It’s likely nothing changes in that regard.
My parents always told me God was mysterious. He may just tell LeBron to remain in the East, and continue the beat-down on an inferior Indiana bunch.
It’s time to learn that defense doesn’t always win championships. This isn’t the Super Bowl, where you can dismantle the greatest quarterback to ever live and win a title. This is the NBA, where you need offense to win four games out of seven. To do that, these Pacers must unload, then reload this summer.
What all will that include? We’ll discuss that when we know LeBron’s Decision 2.0.
Just know one thing: It includes Lance “Born Ready” Stephenson, and prohibits Evan Turner.
**Statistical support credited to Basketball-Reference.com**