Is it fair to call a team that won 56 games, earned a one-seed and made the Eastern Conference Finals a disappointment? How about if that same team was eliminated from the playoffs by the Miami Heat, a squad that will compete in its fourth straight NBA Finals?
In the case of the Indiana Pacers, yes.
Indiana made its goals clear before the season even began: earn home-court advantage by finishing as the top-seed in the East and beat the Heat in the playoffs. Through the first few months of the season, it appeared the Pacers were following that plan perfectly. Indiana jumped out to a 33-7 start to the regular season, defeating opponents by an average of 9.9 points per game. Indiana’s defense was the best in the league and Paul George was a leading MVP candidate.
Then, the wheels began to fall off. The Pacers’ offense became stagnant and George’s shooting percentages plummeted. Roy Hibbert, the Pacers’ All-Star center, turned into a shell of the player he was early in the season. Moves to add Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum ended up being complete busts.
These factors resulted in Indiana skidding to a 23-19 finish over its final 42 games. While the Pacers managed to hold onto the top-seed in the East and achieve their goal of earning home-court for the playoffs, the team’s confidence had taken a major hit.
Indiana’s downfall culminated in Friday’s blowout loss to the Heat in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals. After pushing Miami to the brink of elimination in last year’s playoffs, Indiana regressed this season and looked completely outmatched against the two-time defending champs. Compounding the embarrassment of getting thrashed by the Heat was the Pacers’ behavior throughout the series.
Head coach Frank Vogel and several Pacers players complained about unfair officiating. Hibbert sulked to the media about not getting enough touches in the post. And then there was Lance Stephenson.
Stephenson behaved like an idiot throughout the Eastern Conference Finals. First, he went on record saying that he wanted Dwyane Wade’s knees to “flare up” in the series. Then, Stephenson tried to get in LeBron James’ head by questioning his mental toughness. Along with his off-court antics, the fourth-year guard exhibited immature and unprofessional behavior on the court. Stephenson blew into James’ ear during Game 5. He then slapped James in the face during Game 6. He also drew a flagrant foul later in the game after striking Norris Cole in the face while pursuing a loose ball.
Stephenson’s buffoonish behavior put a cherry on top of the unsatisfying sundae that was the Pacers’ season. Indiana’s constant talk of toughness and maturity was exposed as just that, talk. When the cards were down and the Pacers had to step up, they couldn’t.
Now, the Pacers enter an offseason filled with questions. Should Vogel return as the coach? Should they re-sign Stephenson after he publicly embarrassed the franchise? Is Hibbert tradable?
These questions will be answered in a few months. As for now, the only thing certain about the Pacers is that they are a true disappointment.