Colossal thrill or massive letdown. The Indiana Pacers will provide one or the other by season’s end.
There is no middle ground.
Expectations have been too high for too long to allow any other result.
Rewind to last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. The dust from Game 7 hadn’t cleared before the Pacers proclaimed their intention to rise from the ashes and win the East the following season.
Well, this is the following season. Only four games remain before the playoffs. Two months ago, the Pacers seemed poised to breeze through them.
Today, not so much.
Although the postseason is clinched and the East still there for the taking, the post-All-Star break Pacers in no way resemble the pre-break Pacers.
The pre-break Pacers started 33-8 and had the NBA’s best record for much of the first three-fourths of the season. The post-break Pacers are 20-18 during the past |38 games and no longer lead the East, let alone the NBA.
Heading into tonight’s game at Milwaukee, Indiana trails Miami by one game in the East (the Heat played late Tuesday night), has slipped to the fourth-best record in the league and no longer is the toast of the NBA.
Rather, it is on the cusp of becoming toast. Consider: The Pacers enter tonight on a two-game skid, have lost five of their past six and have dropped eight of their past 11.
What’s more, they’re suddenly a bad road team.
Road warriors during the first half of the season, the Pacers are 7-12 away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse since Jan. 24 — a foreboding de-evolution for a team that might fall short of its oft-stated objective of earning home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs, if not the entire postseason.
No, these are not the best of times for the Pacers. And they couldn’t come at a worse time — not just with regard to the playoffs, but their standing in the community, as well.
As evidenced by a season-long string of sellouts, fans were — after a lengthy hiatus — back on board. Three consecutive postseason appearances, coupled with a collection of players who were easy to like, made the product appealing.
Last year’s run to Game 7 of the conference finals seemed to cement the community’s adoration, further strengthened by the promise of bigger and better things this season.
And for the better part of this season, bigger and better things seemed a certainty. Reaching and winning the conference finals a fait accompli. The only question was, would they actually take the championship once they reached the NBA Finals?
But along came the second half of the season, and little has gone right as uncertainty reigns. Reaching, let alone winning, the conference finals might be a long shot. And the big question is, will the Pacers implode before the semifinals begin?
Chemistry, once a strength, has become a mess. If All-Star designations could be rescinded, Paul George and Roy Hibbert would be the first to have theirs revoked. Lance Stephenson, who last season seemed to have mended fences with teammates, is the guy they despise again. David West, a pillar of leadership, has no uniting words of wisdom. George Hill, who reportedly had to be separated from Stephenson during a timeout in a blowout loss against San Antonio, probably misses San Antonio more than ever.
And the bench? It’s in disarray, too. Luis Scola, an early fan favorite, has faded from glory. Evan Turner has been considerably less than sensational since the Danny Granger trade. C.J. Watson has missed 17 games with assorted elbow and hamstring injuries. And Andrew Bynum, who’s appeared in two games, might never play again with chronic knee issues.
Is this any way to fire up fans before the playoffs? Only if the goal is to let them down.
And that’s precisely what will happen if the Pacers fall short of winning the East. They set the bar, they made the boasts, they have to deliver.
Shaky as it is, there is no middle ground.
Rick Morwick is the sports editor of the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.