"For us, you know, the one thing I don't think anybody recognizes about us is all of us (pointing to the rest of the five starters) have a chip on our shoulder. We talk about, every game we talk about almost, where we were drafted and how we felt like at some point somebody in this league said F you to one of us and that drives us. And that's the one thing that connects all of us, connects our locker room is the fact that we have guys that are driven to prove our worth. In terms of where we feel that we can go with this group, we're fighting to be the top dog, the last man standing." - David West in ESPN SportsCenter interview back in November
So what happens when you play so well that everybody loves you and the chip that motivated you to play so well flutters off your shoulder, melting before it hits the ground?
Gone are the doubts and slights you used to build that chip on your shoulder to motivate a high-level of play, replaced instead by national media features and speculation about individual awards.
Human nature can be a beast sometimes.
The Pacers started the season on a mission to show everyone around the NBA that they belonged among the elite title contenders in the league. For two months, they accomplished that task while grabbing loads of attention. So much attention, that they became the favorites for many.
While this is a team that succeeds by playing together as a strong unit more valuable than the sum of their individual parts, those individual parts started getting more and more individual attention. There was plenty of love to spread around and by the time the All-Star break rolled around, with the coaching staff and two starters in the showcase game, the edge that drove their early success was gone.
Hard to rally behind a "We'll show you!" mantra when everyone already let you know they like what they see. The Pacers can try to go about their business in the same way, but the edge they carried deep inside their collective mindset disappeared.
Human nature don't lie.
Handling being the "hunted" requires a different type of edge than being the "hunter" and the Pacers have shown they struggle to handle the mentality of that change.
Larry Bird wasn't real happy with what he was seeing after the strong start and tried to shake things up, first by adding Andrew Bynum and then by trading Danny Granger for Evan Turner. The obvious message from Bird: My team isn't good enough to win a title.
Instead of seizing on Bird's moves to build back that chip, the Pacers appeared to respond with a "maybe he's right" attitude. It appeared their confidence was shaken, but in reality, they now had to work two key and very different parts into their playing rotation. That certainly didn't help, but a couple of weak spots in the schedule, gave the Pacers the opportunity to work in the new players.
Bird again, sent a message to his team with comments in a Bob Kravitz column that expressed his disappointment and raised questions about Frank Vogel's approach with the team. This time they were ready for the proper response, which was evident with the full-team effort to flip a 25-point deficit in Detroit into an eight-point OT win on Saturday night.
Yes, it was against a struggling Detroit team that lost a key big man early in the game. Yes, the Pacers may be building momentum against a soft schedule. But...
That win in Detroit was the first time Vogel had taken his team to task while Bynum and Turner were in the mix. The two new players responded along with the rest of the team and delivered what was needed to win the game. Those circumstances and that team effort, with Bynum and Turner involved, will go a long way to galvanize this new playing rotation.
But they won't truly be tested until the playoffs begin.
So now the Blue and Gold tries to find and maintain that required edge while holding on to the top spot in the East. Ginning up perceived slights isn't easy. Maybe that's the subconscious explanation behind all of the recent antics with the officials, as Tim Donahue highlighted here. But again, you can't fake the edge the Pacers like to play with, it has to be real (unless you're Michael Jordan and you can make stuff up in your own mind. LaBradford Smith? Really?)
So in a warped view of the past few weeks, regaining that edge fueled by doubts and disrespect should be no problem as the narrative surrounding the team has changed and many now dismiss the Pacers chances to turn it on again. Not only are we hearing doubts about beating the Heat, but also the surging Chicago Bulls, were the teams to match up in the playoffs.
Talk about Paul George competing for the MVP is long gone. Lance Stephenson is no longer the popular pick for Most Improved Player and Roy Hibbert, considered a shoe-in for Defensive Player of the Year after the first two months of the season, has faded from the conversation.
As the Pacers head to the home stretch of the regular season, when they need to dial in their game for the playoffs, they continue trying to play like the elite title contender they looked like earlier in the season. Fortunately, there is hope that the Pacers can turn it around now that everyone has noticed their flaws.