With his team leading by one point and the fourth quarter game-clock winding in Indiana’s thrilling Game 4 win over the Wizards, Roy Hibbert caught the ball three feet above the left block. Bodied ably by a game Nene, Indy’s embattled center took a left-handed dribble and two lumbering steps to the middle, pushing himself farther away from the basket. Uncomfortable shooting over his right shoulder from such a distance, Hibbert quickly gathered, pivoted, and flung an awkward 12-foot hook at the rim over the outstretched arms of his defender.
Clank, clank, swish – Indiana led Washington 94-91 with 1:02 remaining, a tiny gap that would nonetheless prove insurmountable. And having won the last three games of their Eastern Conference Semifinal series, the Pacers were one victory from having another chance to compete for a title.
That’s how quickly the story changes. Indiana trailed the Wizards by 18 points in that game’s third quarter. The Pacers survived an 0-2 series deficit after some questionable Washington shot-selection in the waning seconds of Game 2. But they’re up 3-1 regardless now, here behind wildly improved play from Hibbert and the two-way dominance of Paul George that had so many anointing him superstar when Indy looked like basketball’s best team before the calendar turned to 2014.
The Pacers are winners of three consecutive games for the first time since mid-March. They’ve held Washington to a 92.5 offensive rating and 48.1% true shooting, numbers that easily best their league-leading regular season marks. They’re turning the ball over on just 13.7% of possessions against the Wizards, down from a 29th-ranked season-long number of 15.8%.
Indiana, basically, is playing better basketball than it has in weeks. There’s no logical argument otherwise. But that doesn’t mean the Pacers, suddenly, are the overwhelming force they were in the season’s opening months. The balance and nuance necessary to most accurately assess the state of any team still applies to Indy, no matter how much excitement knee-jerk reaction to their recent success generates.
Take the Pacers (regular) season-defining slide, for instance. Evidence of Indy’s imminent regression was obvious before we were comfortable admitting its existence; George’s insane mid-range efficiency at the season’s outset serves as a perfect microcosm. Even as his accuracy plummeted from Nowitzkian-levels to dreadful ones as the sample size increased, there was a hesitance to buy into his struggles. George earned that pause after such an incredible November and December, not to mention his rise to stardom in the 2013 playoffs. And the truth was one that we should have seen coming all along: George isn’t the 52.4% mid-range shooter he was in the season’s first month, and he’s not the 36.9% one he was in February, either. He’s somewhere in that meaty middle, as his season-long performance has made abundantly clear.
Indiana as a whole is hardly much different. The Pacers aren’t the world-beaters their 16-1 start suggested, nor the also-ran that barely managed league-average basketball since the All-Star break. So should they ultimately prevail over Washington, it’s key to keep this current ‘renaissance’ in proper perspective while examining their chances going forward.
The Wizards are big and talented, and outdid even optimistic expectations for their playoff debut in so easily ousting Chicago. But their rise – unlike previous postseason upstarts like the 2010 Thunder, 2011 Bulls, or even 2012 Pacers – is indicative of specific circumstance as opposed to longterm title contention. Washington, basically, has taken advantage of an injury-depleted, woebegone East to advance to the conference semifinals. Its regular season mediocrity speaks to that humbling truth as much as anything else – their +1.3 point differential ranked 15th in the NBA.
Indiana very well might be “back,” but it’s crucial to realize the layered minutiae of such a distinction. The Pacers, time and results have told us, aren’t November’s juggernaut or March’s laughingstock no matter which narrative best grabs our attention at a given time. And that’s fine! There’s room for a solid, flawed team in these Eastern Conference Finals, and the context of their – in the end, at least – inevitable rematch with Miami means that series will be more competitive than the disparate quality of each team suggests.
Does that mean a trip the the Finals is in Indy’s future? No. That’d still be surprising despite its recent success. But stranger things – like the Pacers’ apex and nadir – have certainly happened.
*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.
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