For all of Indiana’s efforts on the court to best solidify their chances of overcoming the two-time champion Miami Heat, it is the Pacers’ actions off the floor that have already triggered one collapse this year, and will soon spark another.
The organization has made itself into a championship contender, and proved its worth as one, through the game of play: the players’ cohesion and developing efficiency has vaulted the team into the upper echelons of the NBA. Its fame has not resulted from off-the-court popularization or basketball marketability, but from how complete and polished the squad is–namely the starting five–and how formidable they stand in the face of the megastars from South Beach. Thus, comments from Roy Hibbert and Paul George earlier in the season that first derailed the team, and now those of Lance Stephenson that will surely have the same effect, will make the season’s inevitable outcome both ironic and mind-boggling for Indiana.
Harken back to the shower of praise–in which two Pacer members partook–following the 61-point spectacular performance by LeBron James on May 3rd. Shortly after James’s achievement, Hibbert chimed in with applause on Twitter, which it’s worth mentioning has become a reliable outlet for an NBA player’s expression, tweeting “damn @KingJames 61 is tough. Congrats.” In the days following this seemingly simple gesture of praise, and presumably tied in some way to James’s recent surge, teammate Paul George expressed his desire to work with and learn from LeBron James. He essentially viewed the Heat superstar as a potential mentor, of course in spite of the fact that James and his team constitute the sole obstacle to George and his Pacers’ aspirations.
At face value, these instances do not appear egregious or damning, but rather gestures of respect and sportsmanship towards the opposition. But is it any coincidence that after the tweet and the comments to Basketball Insiders, the Pacers finished April on a 6-10 slide and ended the year 10-13, barely securing their number-one Eastern Conference spot and overtly showing their struggles along the way? It’s nice that players can act respectfully towards their contemporaries, but at the same time, there’s a time and place for these friendly activities. For the Indiana Pacers, James and the Miami Heat serve as the adversaries and hindrances to their goals, thereby forming the image of LeBron particularly as the enemy–not in any malicious way, but in purely competitive spirit. In no way is it permissible to reveal a hint of deference by congratulating the enemy on his successes, as Hibbert did, or to suggest to cooperate and mingle with him, as George desires to do.
Thus, through the actions of two prominent Indiana starters off court, the lack of a competitive mindset within the team’s core was uncovered, one that both NBA champions of the past and present possess. This damages the team’s prospects in the long run, but the more immediate effect, as mentioned before, manifested itself in a horrid stretch to conclude the regular season.
Now fast forward to yesterday, when another key figure on the Pacers roster, shooting guard Lance Stephenson, made comments about LeBron outside the court of play. Perhaps still remembered for flashing a choke sign at King James while in a backup role, this time Stephenson told the Associated Press that he feels he has gotten under LeBron’s skin and considers getting trash-talked by the Heat star a sign of weakness. Although this sort of statement connotes a very different attitude towards the opposition, the instance plays into the bigger picture of exposing Indiana’s focus on something other than itself and its abilities. It seems out of character for the Pacers to direct their attention to the their rivaling squad, rather than concentrating on themselves, their performance, and what they can do as a team: an approach that has led them to their status as one of the NBA’s best. Simply put, it’s matter of distractions and the Pacers investing themselves in something other than what they do on the court.
Moreover, at this juncture in the NBA year, when players battle through fatigue and seek sources of inspiration as they inch closer and closer to the illustrious NBA Finals, why would Stephenson dare to poke the proverbial bear? It’s not as if publicly clarifying on-court happenings and then making assumptions off them will irritate the attacked player in a manner that will hinder his ability. Instead, if anything, it will provide James and his team with “bulletin board” material, and incite the Heat–especially LeBron of course–with an extra push and motivation in their quest for a three-peat.
And that’s additional to the aforementioned effect Stephenson’s words will have on his team in terms of diverting focus. In what will eerily parallel the aftermath of Hibbert and George’s comments off the court, Stephenson’s actions off the floor yesterday will help bring about Indiana’s imminent downfall, one that is notably self-inflicted and outside the basketball court.
*Written without knowledge of the outcome of ECF Game 4 on Monday, April 26th.