On Wednesday night, Roy Hibbert rose from the dead. Trevor Ariza and Drew Gooden returned to earth. George Hill played John Wall to at least a draw, if not better. After allowing 20 points off 13 turnovers in their Game 1 loss, Indiana allowed only 1 point off 8 turnovers in their Game 2 win. Yet, with 5 minutes remaining, the Pacers were staring up at a three-point deficit. When the final horn sounded, Indiana was clutching a much-needed 86-82 victory that wasn’t fully secure until Roy Hibbert collected the rebound off Trevor Ariza’s 30-footer with under three seconds left.
This is how it’s gonna be.
Pacers, the #1 seed in name, are the lower seed in this series by play. While it remains debatable which team is “better” – whatever that means – it is clear that the Wizards are playing better basketball in these playoffs. They have won four of their five playoff road games. Impressive for any team, it is a jawdropping accomplishment for a team whose backcourt (and two leading regular season scorers) combined for zero playoff games before this April.
Meanwhile, Indiana’s struggles have been well documented. After winning 33 of their first 37 home games, the Pacers have lost five of the ten games they’ve hosted since March 31st. Worse, they have often been uncompetitive. In those five home losses, they trailed by 20 or more four times, including by at least 30 in two of them. The Wizards’ lead got as high as 16 in the fifth.
Their wins during this time frame have shown no consistent theme. The regular season victories featured two on the road against Milwaukee & Orlando in which the five starters played a combined 31 minutes, and a Sunday win over OKC where the C.J. Watson led bench outscored the Thunder reserves 51-27. Games 2 & 7 in the first round were the closest we’ve seen to what Pacer observers would call “script” wins. Indiana won Games 4 in Atlanta with a 15-8 spurt over the final 6-1/2 minutes that featured David West and Luis Scola as the bigs. They won Game 6 in Atlanta by not playing Luis Scola at all, instead giving his minutes to Chris Copeland, then riding David West during a 16-4 run over the final three minutes of the game. Wednesday, it was a freakishly good game from Roy Hibbert.
“A different guy every night” is one of Frank Vogel’s mantras. It’s generally used to tout the balance that has been the hallmark of the highly successful Pacer team that grew under his watch. But, that’s not what’s happening here. This isn’t Pacer opponents having to pick their poison. This is a function of desperation.
In their nine playoff games, the Indiana Pacers have not won a single game that they didn’t absolutely have to win. When they had a chance to get an edge – Games 1, 3, and 5 of the Atlanta series and Game 1 in Round 2 – the Pacers were erratic, ineffective, and a step slow. When they couldn’t afford to lose, they found a way. That fact is both admirable and disappointing.
“I alway feel like the team that lost the last game has the advantage [in terms of adjustments] in a seven-game series, ” Pacer coach Frank Vogel said before Game 5 versus Atlanta. He’s not wrong. In an evenly matched series, the loser of the last game will be more likely to adjust, forcing the opponent to have to react on the fly. However, adjusting schemes is a decidedly different than the wholesale temporary reinvention that the Pacers have undergone at times this postseason just to survive.
Long time Pacer observers have witnessed a pattern similar to this before. In 2005, the Pacer team that limped into the playoffs was significantly different than the one that started the season. Thanks in large part to their own stupidity and lack of self control, Indiana was a broken team.
That Pacer team was led by an about-to-retire Reggie Miller, a slumping Jermaine O’Neal, and the always erratic Stephen Jackson and Jamaal Tinsley. They had just gone through one of the most grueling and difficult seasons in professional team sports history. They were tired and had very little left, and it shows in the game results.
You could feel that team gather up all of its strength for a game, get the win, then have very little left for the next one.
This year’s Pacers are broken, but for different (but still self-inflicted) reasons. They are not old, and they are largely healthy. But, they no longer know who they are, and that’s taking a different kind of toll on this team.
The Pacers still understand the idea of what made them good, but they no longer really know how to do “what we do.” Playing with desperation is exhausting, but the bigger factor in the eggs laid in Games 3 & 5 of the first round and Game 1 against Washington is that they don’t really know what to do with themselves, when they’re not putting out fires.
“Desperation” isn’t a key ingredient for long term success. The day may be coming very soon, where it simply isn’t enough. But, for now it’s all they have. So far this postseason, having their backs put against the wall has seemed to be the only thing that has kept them on their feet.