And so ends the season of innocence lost:
>> With a thrashing so brutal, it should leave scars all over this roster;
>> With the best player on the team publicly planting seeds of doubt about his interest in playing with the next-best;
>> With Lance Stephenson once again making himself the center of a personal three-ring circus, demanding attention for all the wrong reasons;
>> With another mysteriously small performance from Roy Hibbert;
>> With nothing, again, from the bench.
The 117-92 loss to Miami in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals was more than a series closeout for the Pacers, it very likely marked the end of the journey for a team that devolved before our very eyes.
With the stated goal of having Game 7 of his series in Bankers Life Fieldhouse within their grasp, the Pacers did not even reach out. Miami blew it open early with a 26-4 run and simply kept pouring it on. Thus the Heat becomes just the fourth team in NBA history, and the first in nearly 30 years, to reach the NBA Finals four years in a row.
And the Pacers? For the first time in four years, they appear, directionless and, even worse, clueless. Thoroughly of their own doing, they transformed from that plucky little team that was the darling of the NBA into a pitiable collection of lost souls.
“We can be proud of the fact we got here again,” said David West. “It didn’t look like we were going to do that. I thought the group fought but in this moment you’ve got to show what you’ve built, what you’re made of, and obviously they’re more prepared, more seasoned for this moment and it they’re able to embrace these moments and get to a level that that we for some reason, we just can’t compete.”
There is no shame in losing to one of the best teams in NBA history, and there is some sense of accomplishment in returning to the conference finals two years in a row, finishing with the best regular-season record in the East.
But on each previous step up the ladder, the Pacers entered the offseason with genuine cause for optimism.
Not this time.
Now, the Pacers face nothing but uncertainty. The only thing they know is the chasm between their talent level, their professionalism, their maturity and those of the Heat cannot be closed by internal growth and a couple of new bench players to scapegoat.
“It’s bitterly disappointing to fall short of our goals, and it’s bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row but we’re competing against the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era,” Frank Vogel said. “You just have to go into the offseason with the mindset that we’re going to reload, and we have a core, a system, a culture that’s going to give is a chance every year.
“We’ve got to make whatever adjustments we have to make to come back and be here again next year.”
Bird’s biggest decision, of course, is what to do with Stephenson. An unrestricted free agent, Stephenson will be a hot commodity on the open market. The assumption all along has been that Bird, who has been Stephenson’s strongest supporter on the team since drafting him in the second round in 2010, would do whatever it takes to re-sign him and that remains the most likely course of action.
But Stephenson’s inability to contain his emotions, his tendency to lapse into unrestrained narcissism on the court has polarized not only the fan base, but the locker room.
Asked if he would like to have Stephenson “by his side” next season, here is how George responded:
“I don’t know. That’s for Larry, Kevin (Pritchard), for them to decide. It would be great. We came into this league together. It would be great for us to continue our journey together. But he’s played a huge year this whole season and in this postseason. So it’s definitely put pressure on us to make decisions going forward with Lance.”
No matter how you choose to read between the lines, it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement.
Before Game 6, Stephenson said Bird told him not to get involved in any more antics. During Game 6, Stephenson cupped James’ chin during a dead ball, drawing an angry response; smacked Norris Cole in the head for a flagrant foul that spurred the Heat to double what was a 13-point margin to 26 by halftime, while thoroughly deflating the Pacers; and scored just 11 points.
Strip away all the nonsense, and the root of the issue is this: in the last four games of the series, Stephenson averaged just 10.5 points on 40 percent shooting. He was not the only Pacers player to underperform, but he was the only one to do it so spectacularly.
Bird must also determine if a team built traditionally, around a low-post center, can win if that low-post center isn’t dominant. The other three teams in the conference finals represent a more evolved version of the game, with smaller, more agile lineups.
And then there is the bench, the rebuilt unit that was supposed to make the difference this year, only to be outscored 149-93.
Where last season ended with promise, this one ended with disbelief. Where last season ended with hope, this one ended with doubt. Where last season ended with unity, this one ended in pieces.
Where will next season end? It is up to Bird to make sure it is not in Miami.