I am a fan of the Indiana Pacers, but it sometimes feels like fan is too strong a word. Dispassionate partisan would usually be a more apt description. Coming from the school of thought that emotional control is a virtue and reactionary outbursts are an unbecoming facet of human existence, I’d say my default sports setting is detachment. I am not a complete robot, I feel excitement, disappointment, frustration; but quietly and those emotions are almost always left behind at the final buzzer. But that Game One skidmark against the Hawks broke my placid facade.
I was angry. Angry enough that I turned the game off midway through the fourth quarter when the Hawks lead hit 20. I can see from the box score that the Pacers eventually trimmed the final deficit to eight points, but I can’t imagine anything happening in those last few minutes that would have eased my frustration. I don’t begrudge the Pacers a loss or even a loss by a wide margin. The boot to the belly was that they lost big because they so thoroughly abandoned the premise that offensive structure might have anything to do with offensive efficiency. In a third quarter that saw the Hawks turn a tie game into a 14-point lead, the Pacers’ response was mostly to stand around and watch Paul George vainly and repeatedly trying to run through a brick wall.
George’s individual numbers seem impressive–24 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals, 2 blocks, 12 free throw attempts. But in that crucial third quarter when the Hawks turned a basketball game into a rout, George was 1-7 and singlehandedly disassembled the Pacers’ offense. On some level a performance this disastrous was to be expected. The Pacers have been grappling with inadequacy for two months and the Hawks handed them a 19-point drubbing not three weeks ago. The Pacers’ offense has been shell of its former self, which was really just a shell of an efficient offense to begin with. But watching George simply walk away from any attempt at system or synergy was maddening. Equally troubling was that no one appeared interested in stopping him.
The problem is that when George finds himself drowning in that individual mindset it has a spiraling exponential effect, pulling everyone down. Every contested pull-up by Paul George just reinforces Evan Turner’s horrific decision making and sends David West looking to vent his frustrations through excessive physicality. That leads to a screaming match with Pero Antic while Roy Hibbert wanders around the lane wondering if there is some sort of fog in the arena hovering around eight feet off the ground and preventing his teammates from seeing him.
And saddest of all is the way Lance Stephenson’s spirit has been so drastically bent. If you can excuse a brief digression, how unbelievably insane is it that Lance Stephenson’s NBA career-high is just 28 points? He is the very model of explosive scoring volatility but the Pacers have so ingrained the importance of control and maturity in him that every time his furnace starts heating up, the first mistake he makes dials it back to zero with Lance shaking his head, ruefully clapping his hands and quietly reminding himself that he’s just a piece of the puzzle….a piece of the puzzle….a piece of the puzzle…..a piece of the puzzle. If anyone should be singlehandedly deconstructing the Pacers’ offensive system for the sake of a wild ride on the variance train, it’s Lance not Paul.
This is not to say that Paul George is not the Pacers’ most talented or competent offensive player, because he almost certainly is. But that talent and competency only foments within a certain set of circumstances, a fact which makes him exactly like every single other player in the league. Even LeBron James is a cog in a machine; an enormous and central cog in a beautifully efficient and lubricated machine that is designed solely to glorify his utility, but a cog nonetheless.
At their best the Pacers are a splendid interweaving of complementary skills. At their worst they are an utterly useless collection of ill-sorted parts. Both ends of that spectrum have been thoroughly borne out by example this season and the difference between the two appears painfully clear to everyone but the players on the court. There was more than enough effort and intensity in Game One but it was laughably and embarrassingly misdirected. The idealized versions of their offense and defense are complex ecosystems, delicate balancing acts. Exactly the kind of circumstances that need to be maintained by a recommitment to balance not to the application of brute force towards whatever problem appears the most pressing. Early this year they were the kind of team every fan base dreams of supporting–superbly successful but without the surplus of talent that drags guilt along with it. You could feel great about everything they accomplished because they did it by becoming more than the sum of their parts. Which makes this strange long-division problem they’re involved in now so fundamentally dispiriting.
I’m angry that Paul George thought he not we was the solution to the problem. I’m angry that none of his teammates seemed willing or interested in trying to talk him out of it. I’m angry that this once-beautiful construction is now clearly and (probably) irrevocably scattered in pieces around me. And I’m really angry that the playoffs have started and for the first time all year, I’m angry about basketball.