The Indiana Pacers own the Eastern Conference’s second best record, have clinched their division for the second consecutive year, were the first NBA team to 50 wins this season, and are within one game of the Miami Heat for home court advantage in the playoffs.
Paul George said he doesn’t know what to do. Lance Stephenson said he’s lost. David West said the team “isn’t in it mentally.”
Make no mistake: the Indiana Pacers are struggling. They have dropped five straight road games. They are scuffling mightily on the offensive end, having scored less than 80 points in five of six contests.
Then again, the season is an 82-game grind. There are peaks and valleys. The Pacers began the season on a high peak, winning 16 of their first 18 games. Even the most optimistic of fans couldn’t have expected that run to be sustainable. Now, the Pacers are in a valley.
What should be more concerning than the win-loss record is a locker room that seems to be slipping into dysfunction.
The Pacers have enough on-court talent to compete with anyone in the league. But without unity, any aspirations of a rematch with the Miami Heat in the conference finals are a pipedream.
The Pacers have less than two weeks to regain the cohesiveness and “swagger” that had the experts branding them as favorites to win NBA Finals at the beginning of the season.
It doesn’t start on the court. It starts in the locker room. Someone needs to step up and send a message. Not a message to the media or a message to the fans. A message needs to be sent to the players, a message that says the ship hasn’t sunk; far from it.
Earlier in the season, when the Pacers’ slide was just beginning, Pacers CEO Larry Bird sent a not so subtle message that softness would not be acceptable.
“We’ve got to be mentally prepared to really go after the teams we’re playing against,” Bird said. “We can’t have the mindset it’s just another game; it’s a very important game. All of them are.”
The team missed the memo.
Aggressiveness and mental fortitude don’t directly correlate with the box score at the end of the night. Sometimes, a team is more physical on the court and still comes up short.
However, the attitude is what this team is missing.
The Pacers fell behind by 10 to the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night at the end of the first quarter. A fighting team would scratch and claw, even to a team who is riding a 17-game winning streak.
Especially to a team riding a 17-game winning streak. This was an opportunity for the Pacers to get a statement win versus the ‘Heat of the West’. With a win, fans may have reignited dreams of a Finals matchup with the Spurs.
Instead, the Pacers rolled over. Déjà vu all over again.
Simply put, Indiana is playing defeated. It can be seen in the early deficits night in and night out and it can be seen in the player’s attitudes after the game.
Soon, that attitude may usher the Pacers out of the playoffs quicker than anyone could imagine.