Ostensibly, the Pacers are exactly where they planned to be all along. Things haven’t happened the way they — or anyone else — expected, but at the end of the day, nothing has changed. They are in the Eastern Conference Finals again. They have home court. They are facing the Heat.
And they will live or die with the starting five.
When the sun rose on March 1, the Indiana Pacers were 44-13. They closed the season by going 12-13 over March and April.
They limped into the playoffs, holding onto the #1 seed thanks only to Miami having their own issues.
The Pacers spent the first round struggling with their own personal demons as much as they did the Atlanta Hawks.
Roy Hibbert was a gibbering mess, and the starting five was going down with him. Indiana survived to force a seventh and deciding game on its home floor only by (very grudgingly) going away from Hibbert and the starters. The Game 4 win saw David West and Luis Scola finish the game as the bigs with a 15-8 spurt. Facing elimination in Game 6, Pacer Coach Frank Vogel used Chris Copeland for spacing and Ian Mahinmi in place of Hibbert, then rode West home.
The Pacers wanted to play Game 7 on their home floor, but I doubt they were thinking they’d need it in the first round. Still, they got the first reasonable performance from Hibbert (13 points, 7 rebounds, 5 blocks), and the starters were +15 in 28 minutes of the 12-point win.
But the relief was short-lived, as Game 1 of the Washington series may have been the lowest point in a half season full of low points. Getting handled by the Wizards in a game that featured the second zero-point, zero-rebound playoff performance by Hibbert left the Pacers angry and lost.
The Pacer season may not have been saved by an angry weight room lecture and a mellow fishing trip, but those things certainly didn’t hurt.
The first of three straight wins came with Hibbert’s 28 points and the starting five asserting themselves. Since that point, the starters are +50 in 166 minutes, posting a net efficiency of +16.9. (Of note: That includes the WTF? Game 5 performance, in which the starters were -21 in 20 minutes.)
In this resurgence, you can once again see how and why the Pacers can win an Eastern Conference title. And, in the Game 5 debacle, you can see how and why they wouldn’t.
The NBA is a league of stars: LeBron, Durant, Westbrook, Chris Paul.
The Pacers’ star is their starting five. Despite the yips and yaws of the last few months, everyone knew that the Pacers were capable of handling Miami when their starters played like this. The question was always whether they could play like this four times (or more depending on how many Superman games LeBron has).
The test begins Tuesday. No one responds like LeBron’s Heat.
Over the last four playoffs, they’ve lost Game 1 in four separate series. They have come back to win all four of those series, going 16-2 in the games that followed the series opener. They have gone 15-5 in playoff games following losses during the LeBron era, and they haven’t lost consecutive playoff games since the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals.
The Pacers, meanwhile, have only strung three wins together once in the last 29 games. In these playoffs, they are only 4-4 in games following wins.
But, none of that will matter once the ball goes up. Another strong performance from the Pacer starters can put LeBron’s Heat where they’ve never been before: down 2-0.
Are they up to it?