FanPost

The Longest Journey Ever

Rob Carr

[From the FanPosts, p1boggan appreciates the wild ride that has not put the Pacers in the Eastern Conference finals. -TL]

It sounded more like something you'd read at the end of a Cormac novel.

The grueling task at hand led him and the others to wander. Whether it was a journey of the mind or body had yet to be decided. The sun settled nestled into the horizon, shimmering a shimmer only known to those searching far and wide for the answers of a God. Or a god that lie hidden in the ripples of the water and the amber of what shimmered below them. Answers passed as did time. But a God never passed and the answers stayed the same. It was the amber and the ripples and the shimmer. And they knew it all along.

Though I’d like to think even McCarthy had this one figured out, the fact remains no one saw this coming. It ended with a fish, and that’s the best place to start.

Cruising to a petulant 40-12 record (yawn) to open the season, the Pacers essentially clinched the first seed in three-months time. Dropping five of their last 11 heading into the All-Star break wasn’t a part of the plan, but hey, this was the mighty Pacers of Indiana. Only the ’08 Celtics and ’04 Pistons were recent comparisons. Only the ’11 Mavs played like this. A few mishaps here and there weren’t going to stop them.

Only a month later, those five out of 11 losses quickly became 10 out of 24, which then became 19 out of 41, or a 46% winning percentage to close the season; that number, over the course of a season, would’ve slotted Indiana as the eighth seed in the East.

And though he was still the first to report it, Zach Lowe of Grantland saw the telling signs several weeks prior.

"I last saw the Pacers live three weeks ago, when the team sleepwalked its way to a weirdly close win over the hapless Sixers in Philly.

The vibe around Indy was off that night. Frank Vogel, normally unflappable, was frazzled, angrily challenging reporters to find one possession on which the team had not played its hardest. When the locker room opened, Paul George and Roy Hibbert were seated next to each other, having a loud argument about the team’s crumbling offense. George complained that Hibbert was posting up at the wrong times, getting in everyone’s way. Hibbert was saying something about getting touches. They kept at it in front of the few reporters that had walked in right away."

And remember, that happened nearly a month before the ship nosedived. What was a double-digit lead for home-court throughout the postseason evaporated before our very eyes. And as the year came to a close, it was clear: the Pacers failed to hand the number one seed away as opposed to earning it.

They opened the first round against the Hawks whom, oddly enough, were their matchup-nightmare. Atlanta spread the floor in ways unimaginable, forcing Hibbert to stretch beyond his comfort zone in order guard the feisty Pero Antic above the arc. George couldn’t handle the drive-and-kick souped-up version of Jeff Teague, resulting in several open looks for every Hawks role-player. And if those problems weren’t enough, behind-the-scenes issues continued to spiral out of control. Paul George was regressing to the means…Lance Stephenson continued creating one-man highlight reels for any interested GM…Hibbert was a shell of a shell of his former self…Evan Turner was asked to play an important role…George Hill forgot how to play basketball…Chris Copeland began logging more time at center…reports of an actual fight between Stephenson and Turner came to fruition…Bynum, a walking cancer, was signed midseason…Granger, a close and personal friend of the entire roster, was shipped to LA for nothing…and did I mention that Hibbert didn’t give a damn? But even then, Indiana somehow managed to escape in seven games.

Once Washington knocked off the Pacers in Game 1 of the Eastern Semifinals, the rest of the series had written itself. Hibbert had reached an all-time low, finishing with an abysmal +/- of -17, 0 rebounds, and 0 points on an 0-2 shooting night. There it is, everyone, including myself, thought aloud. I mean, never had we seen anything like this before. Never had a team been sodominant, then suddenly, with the flip of a switch, so horrendous. For the rest of humanity, the 2014 Pacers became the go-to reference for any comparable series of events.

Then, a fish happened.

Hibbert came out the following night with a new ferocious outlook on life, let alone basketball. In 24 hours he morphed from dead-weight and a guy only the Mavs would target to the franchise center Indiana inked for $58 million dollars two seasons ago. His box score (28 PTS, 9 RBS), though healthy, didn’t give it’s proper due. He boxed-out Gortat harder, called for the ball on the block, set tighter screens, and shot during any given one-on-one opportunity.

But where was this all along?

Apparently, on the lake, encompassed through the sport of bass fishing.

"I seriously believe that the biggest person that helped me out here tonight was Paul," Hibbert said, a statement made more meaningful by the fact that the Pacers have been dealing with rumors of chemistry problems. "We fished for about two hours and just relaxed and didn’t talk about basketball. We just talked about life and tried to catch some bass. He reached out and got my mind off things and this is hopefully something I can build on. He’s a great teammate, so I really do appreciate him reaching out ’cause he didn’t have to."

Indiana closed out the Wiz in six games last night, punching their ticket to another Conference Finals. And quite honestly, it should come as no shock that, after everything that’s occurred up to this point, the one and two seeds are left alone to battle for a spot in the Finals.

Historically, Hibbert has been the key against the Heat. Whether it be Miami’s failure to run a true center onto the court has yet to be proven, but Hibbert has averaged just over five more points per 100 possessions against the Heat than any other team, per NBA.com Stats. Of course, there are still a few remaining obstacles to avoid.

For all we know, George could have peaked, Hill could be done, Stephenson may already be spending his inevitable contract, and Hibbert could revert back into a pumpkin. And that’s why, for now at least, we’re left with no choice but to wait and see. Whether it be Indiana’s meteoric rise, impending demise, surfacing mediocrity, or sudden talent at bass fishing, we never could have seen any of this coming.

Why start now?

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