It felt almost like destiny. A high stakes, winner takes all Game 7 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Unlike some films or novels with alternative endings that can be substituted to suit the individual tastes of consumers, no other conclusion for this Pacers' team really seems to jive with what they were and what they should have been. Certainly an elimination game in Miami in which they were, once again, eliminated in a blowout from title contention does not fit the bill. It is not in keeping with this team's long-term character and plot development. Not at all. It was supposed to be a Cinderella story. A classic tale about a team uniquely bonded together by their desire to silence the naysayers, and their journey to thwart the NBA's next developing dynasty.
Yet, somewhere along the line and most visibly before Game 6, the narrative on the Blue and Gold changed. Instead of playing the role of the unlikely protagonist, the Indiana Pacers transformed into the league's next villain:
"In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, I desperately wanted Chris Bosh's last-second, baseline 3-pointer to fall. I wanted this series and this season over."
"Somehow, Indiana survived to make one more trip to Miami for Friday night, and now the Pacers will get the full force of LeBron James in Game 6, the full force of paying for Stephenson's clown show. The Pacers will need him of strong body and mind, need him playing it straight, and now they find out whether Lance Stephenson is capable of playing the part of a real point guard in pursuit of the NBA Finals - or just some clown trying to inspire the greatest player in the world to a meltdown that's never, ever coming."
"Now the Pacers seem fortunate just to be here, their talent still evident but their spirit diminished. They might not be around to scrutinize much longer.
When the Pacers do fall, the disappointment will not be that they lost to James and Wade and an eminently talented Miami team. No, the disappointment is that they no longer seem worthy of this stage."
Suddenly, the Indiana Pacers served as the ultimate foil for the Miami Heat. One a surefire contender the other an embarrassing pretender. One pictured as professional the other painted as a clown. One calm, cool, and collected the other maddeningly manic.
Sure, the Pacers brought a lot of this descriptive imagery and vitriol on themselves. They limped to the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. They aired their dirty laundry for the world to see. Their team chemistry appeared fractured; or, at the very least, splintered. They struggled with a below .500 eight-seed in the first round. They squandered a 15-point lead in Game 3 of the ECF. Some of them called out the officials, and one of them was routinely shown engaging in what was later described as childish antics.
Nevertheless, with these as the qualifications for the league's most recent version of Snidely Whiplash, it is slightly surprising that the NBA community did not deem more teams "unworthy of the stage." The Indiana Pacers were not the only contender to falter down the stretch of the regular season. They were not the only team to give up a sizable lead in a playoff game. They were not the only team that received, or should have received, fines for flopping. They were not the only team to publicly criticize officiating, and they certainly are not the only team to lose to the Miami Heat. Though video evidence is sparse, Lance Stephenson is not the first player to talk some trash with LeBron James, try his hand at walking up on the Miami Heat's huddles, and, disturbingly enough, he may not even be the "maverick" of blowing in an opponent's ear.
Of course, Lance, not unlike the Pacers, is not without his faults. Even Larry Bird, a long-term proponent of Lance Stephenson, was, according to USA Today, bothered by some of the Brooklyn product's antics this season. When asked if he wanted Stephenson by his side next season, Paul George responded, "That's for Larry to decide." There have also even been some rumblings that the Pacers are somewhat wary of giving Born Ready - good, bad, and anything in-between - a lucrative, multi-year deal. Not to mention, ESPN's Marc Stein has already published some summer scoop on the rumored futures of Roy Hibbert, Frank Vogel, Lance Stephenson, and even Mark Jackson. Though, after coming up short in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight season, it should not come as much of a surprise that the Pacers, per usual, will likely be looking into any and all additions and/or subtractions that can improve their roster's short-term as well as long-term outlook.
Now, with the off-season upon them, the Pacers have plenty of time to go fishing, reflect on the season that was, and, perhaps for Paul George, make some improvements at the 2014 FIBA World Cup of Basketball. In the end, whatever the state of the roster may be in the future, count on the fact that individual lessons will be learned and personal growth will continue to be made in the immediate:
Gave you my all Indy sorry I came up short but like I've grown this year.. I WILL GROW AGAIN!!! http://t.co/3DYoQazJVe— Paul George (@Paul_George24) May 31, 2014
We will get stronger from this!!!— David West (@D_West30) May 31, 2014
Never quite making it to the Ball (NBA Finals), the Pacers fell short of completing the final chapter of their Cinderella story. There will be no parade in downtown Indianapolis. No championship banner's hung and no rings distributed, but that does not mean that the Pacers were somehow unworthy of the stage. By winning eight playoff games, they, supposed clown show and all, earned their second consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. Coming up short against a player and team which Frank Vogel rather quickly tagged as the "Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era," the only thing the Pacers are really guilty of is failing to do exactly what no other team, save the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, has successfully accomplished - beat the Miami Heat (Big Three Era) in a playoff series. Indiana already had one championship caliber Pacers' roster synonymous almost exclusively - and rightfully so - with unprofessional behavior. They do not need another:
Losing is incredibly painful bt I have enjoyed being with every player,coach and staff. I can promise one thing - our culture is strong!— Kevin Pritchard (@PacersKev) May 31, 2014
For more on the Pacers' playoff elimination and off-season speculation, check out the links: