From Hunters to Hunted

Posted by C.L. Anthony on Tuesday, April 01, 2014 with No comments
There's been a recurring theme in the NBA this season, when, not if.  An eastern conference final showdown between the Indiana Pacers and the two time defending NBA Champion Miami Heat was all but booked on this season's opening night.  It was clear from the moment that the Pacers suffered a loss to the Heat in game 7 of last season's Eastern Conference Finals that they were the hunters, the team most expected to be next in line and dethrone the defending champions.  The Pacers themselves felt that if they could secure the number one seed in the eastern conference this season and host a game 7 in Indiana that the Heat's reign would end at their hands and even during my preseason predictions, I too felt as if the Pacers would end this current incarnation of the Miami Heat.  The Hunters had their prey in sight and were ready to strike.

Fueled by a sense of entitlement and knowing that their time was now, the Indiana Pacers got off to one of their best starts in franchise history with a blistering record through December only dropping 5 out of 28 games played.  During this stretch they defeated the likes of the Miami Heat, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs.  Franchise star Paul George was continuing his ascension to elite status in the NBA and was an early candidate for the league's MVP award and head coach Frank Vogel was on his way to being named the coach of the NBA's Eastern Conference All-Stars.  The hype machine was at a fever pitch and many analysts considered the Pacers as the favorites to win the elusive NBA Championship.  The Pacers only goal for the season was to secure home court advantage and then close the deal but with that being said, the defending "champs" had something else, something entirely different on their mind.

No excuses

Something has been amiss in South Beach all season long.  Despite having another stellar season, LeBron James hasn't seemed right at points in the season.  His conditioning was questioned as the season opened due to a busy off-season that saw him marry his high school sweet heart, Savannah Brinson.  His apparent lack of conditioning gave way to repetitive back issues which has threatened to derail "The King" but yet, night after night he'd load the Heat on his back and carry them to victory, more so this season versus past seasons.  Former Heat franchise player Dwyane Wade has been in and out of the lineup due to various ailments which has added to workload of James.  The Heat had for the majority of the season opted to ensure that at this time of the season, 2 weeks until the playoffs are set to begin, that their core is healthy versus chasing the number one seed.  The Heat put priority on health and not position and throughout the course of the regular season and for the most of this current 4 year championship run decided to make no excuses.  The season has been filled with highs and low but one thing remained constant, a journey towards excellence, one trap, one steal, and one offensive set at a time.  

As the Indiana Pacers marched and defended their right to earn the number one seed, the Miami Heat marched to health despite Wade being in and out of the lineup, it was all a part of the master plan of the Miami Heat as they executed their "maintenance" program to reach their goal.  With Wade out lately, another franchise mainstay was inserted back into the lineup after sitting for the majority of the NBA season.  Veteran F Udonis Haslem is always ready for his number to be called and he stated as much recently after seeing his playing time increase and his impact speaking volumes.  

“Oh, no, I didn’t know I was going to be sitting all those games this year,” Haslem told RealGM. “Had no idea. It was difficult going through the situation, but I kept myself ready. I worked out every day with [James Jones], Rashard [Lewis], [Michael] Beasley, Toney Douglas and Justin Hamilton, playing three-on-three and keeping each other encouraged.”

Trouble in Paradise?

Last week the two titans of the Eastern Conference met for the third time of the season with both teams having earned previous victories.  The game was a throwback to the 1990's era of basketball where a fan could easily see a 77-75 final.  On that night the final reflected 84-83 as the Pacers walked off the court victorious but in that victory the roles became blurred.  The Indiana Pacers always show up against the Miami Heat, one will see great games out of Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and Lance Stephenson and their last meeting was no different as Hibbert was a beast in the paint for the first half of the game and Paul George hit big shot after big shot.  Lance Stephenson was his volatile self but it's often said that a championship team needs a little crazy as well.  The Heat played an average game, the Pacers played a great intense game and with that said, the Miami Heat had the ball in Chris Bosh's hand with a chance to win.  

Since that victory, the Indiana Pacers have lost their last 3 games and the number 1 seed to the Miami Heat.  There's been rumblings for weeks that things were amiss in Pacers land and now the issues are rising to the surface.  As recently as last evening, two Pacers teammates had to be separated while having a verbal confrontation on the bench and after hearing the news of the Heat passing the Pacers in the standing, Roy Hibbert responded with the following:

"Good for them. We don't deserve it."

A short but powerful statement from a very insightful Hibbert who is seemingly the only member of the Pacers to face the reality of the situation at this time. Over the past week Hibbert has called the Pacers out for their selfishness and lack of ball movement. He has now put himself in a role that should be occupied by Paul George but George has been distracted by various off the court issues. From the moment that former franchise player Danny Granger was jettisoned to the Philadelphia 76ers, George should have become the leader of the locker room and it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that the teams' issues began to surface after Granger's departure.

With his contract expiring this summer, the smart move for the Pacers was to move Granger and gain another piece for their perceived championship run but the reality is that the Pacers lost much more than they gained in G/F Evan Turner who was thrust into a role that he wasn't ready nor meant for. While tinkering with a good thing, Team President Larry Bird may have ripped the soul out of his team. Lets be honest here, the Pacers made a couple of panic moves that weren't not necessary in acquiring Turner and the little used Andrew Bynum who's out indefinitely due to his knees swelling again. There are times where good intentions can pave the road to hell.

Role Reversal?

The Children's tale of the Tortoise and the Hare comes to mind. Where the hare challenges the tortoise to a race and after a blistering start and confident of a victory, the hare takes a nap mid way through the the course. Upon waking the hare notices that the tortoise slowly but surely had arrived at the finish line before him. Perhaps the Pacers peaked at the wrong time while the Heat opted for a slow and steady march to their goal of health come playoff time.  Miami Heat F Chris Bosh recently spoke of the Pacers' boosting of wanting the number 1 seed.

“That’s what we’ve been saying for the whole time,” Bosh said. “You know, that’s why when the Pacers were talking, ‘hey, No. 1 seed, home court!’ it’s like, hey, it’s August. Calm down a little bit. We know how it is. We know it’s a marathon. That’s one of the conversations you have to have amongst yourselves, and it’s a reason to go out there and play hard every day. Saying it to everybody, shouting it from the mountain top, that’s not our style.”

“Our work is just beginning,” Bosh said. “Cause, I mean, we can still lose it. We have to keep concentrating on what we’ve been doing, look to see how we can improve our play. We’re gonna have a shot. That’s all we need. One shot.”

With a little over two weeks left in the regular season the Indiana Pacers must now look in the mirror and ask themselves one question. After leading the Eastern Conference for 152 days are they still the hunters or the hunted? If the Heat win out they will capture the number 1 seed and the same can be said for the Pacers. In the event that the Heat are able to hold on and secure the number 1 seed while still maintaining their maintenance plan with Wade and other veterans, the blow struck to the Pacers may be too large to overcome. As one team grows strong physically, the other is falling apart psychologically, one team is united as the other is infighting.  The sky is clearing falling for the Indiana Pacers and now with all of the pressure on them and they must respond.  My preseason prediction will stay the same, I believe that the Indiana Pacers will dethrone the two time defending NBA Champions but with that being said, this is one time that I wouldn't mind being wrong.  

“Some selfish dudes in here,” Roy Hibbert stated a recent loss. “Some selfish dudes. I’m tired of talking about it. We’ve been talking about it for a month.”