At the start of training camp a confident Indiana Pacers team put all of their faith in home court advantage. It was, in their view, the equalizer, their path to the NBA Finals. So many months later a cruel reality has settled upon the shoulders of the Pacers and another truth is emerging, one they did not expect: home court does not get you to the Finals. You get to the Finals because you are better. You get to the Finals because you can’t be stopped. You get to the Finals because your best player is equal or better to the other team’s best player. You get to the Finals because of defense. You get to the Finals because of offense. You get to the Finals because of adjustments. You get to the Finals because, as Kobe Bryant once put it, “you rip their hearts out”. You get to the Finals because not getting there is the one thing you refuse to accept.
Eight months have passed since all of their arrogance and paper champion dreams. Home court advantage has slipped away. The Pacers are nowhere close to beating the Miami Heat. What the Pacers have excelled at in this series is all of the other stuff-turnovers, misery, trash talking, excuse making. Their lack of self awareness and accountability reveals a more troubling definition of a team that is lacking substance as they approach game 5 trying to save their season. They don’t have the mental toughness required. They don’t have the leadership to dig them out of a hole. They don’t have the coach talented enough to make adjustments.
The Paul George of last year who burst upon the national stage with a vengeance has turned into the Paul George who can’t deal with the expectations. He has ripped a page out of every loser’s playbook, studying it copiously as he blames the referees. He was fined $25,000 because of it, because he said that in game 4 his team played harder than the Heat and lost because of the foul disparity. (It wasn’t true). He said the Pacers lost because of the referees. (It wasn’t true). Nowhere in his accusations was there any hint of accountability for his own lukewarm basketball behavior. He may be paid like he is a star but he is just one more Pacers player who can’t dribble in the paint without getting stripped, can’t shoot with any consistency, misses free throws, doesn’t defend with any passion, doesn’t play with any passion and to top it all off blames everyone else including the fact that he “blacked out” in game 2 and played as if he was in a coma. This much is clear. The Pacers need a star. They need a dynamic player who makes it his mission to carry his team to the finish line. They need someone who takes the blame for losses even when it is not his fault.
In the Eastern Conference Semi- Finals the Miami Heat played a team with a star. Joe Johnson dominated the offense, he gave effort on defense and in the 4th quarter he was unstoppable. Joe and Paul George are in the same max salary stratosphere except Joe knows what a star is supposed to do and he does it regardless of the outcome while Paul sleepwalks through games, plays with zero passion and disappears for long stretches making you wonder: if he can’t lead his team in the Eastern Conference Finals against an injured, exhausted Miami Heat team what was the purpose of making him the face of the franchise?
The constant of the Miami Heat is that they struggle against players who can get into the paint and finish, either at the rim or midrange. When Lance Stephenson dominated the Heat in game 1, Eric Spoelstra countered in the next game with Norris Cole. Cole was the only player on the Heat roster who could stay with Stephenson on defense and on offense make threes. Frank Vogel has yet to make an adjustment to counter the Cole adjustment. He has yet to adapt to Miami’s traps of George Hill on the wing. He has yet to adapt to Miami’s double team of David West taking him out of the Pacers offense and creating turnovers. The Pacers are not constructed to challenge the Heat on the perimeter. Their wing players are not creative scorers and Paul George is a passive player. When they walk the ball up the floor they play into Miami’s hands. The Heat force George Hill away from the middle and trap him, creating turnovers. Frank Vogel’s refusal to play Evan Turner, the one Pacer who can get into the paint and create and finish, is puzzling. Vogel’s defense, his strength, is reminiscent of what we saw in the Atlanta series when three point shooters went unchecked.
So here the Pacers are, down 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals. More than their season is on the line. Their reputation is hanging by a thread. Because if the Pacers lose tonight, what did it all mean? What was the purpose of storming out of the gate and starting the season 16-1? What was the purpose of beating the Thunder on the last Sunday of the regular season so they could get home court advantage? Why trade Danny Granger and acquire Evan Turner if you’re not going to play Evan Turner in the most important series of the year? George Hill conceded: it may take 3 or 4 years to pass the Heat, meaning when the Heat is no longer together we have a chance. Not exactly the confidence building talk you want out of your starting point guard.
The Pacers have a habit of waving the white flag when the going gets tough. As a group they lack strength. They fold under pressure. And tonight the pressure is immense.