- Jason Whitlock
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INDIANAPOLIS -- This is how maddening and frustrating the Indiana Pacers are: Wednesday night in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, I desperately wanted Chris Bosh's last-second, baseline 3-pointer to fall. I wanted this series and this season over.
These schizophrenic Pacers are torture.
A Pacers logo adorns the welcome mat at my front door. An autographed Reggie Miller jersey greets visitors as they enter my Los Angeles apartment. I've loved the Pacers for 40-plus years. I've loved rooting against the Heat for four years.
I'm irate Bosh's shot skidded off the front of the rim. I'm mad LeBron James drove to his right, directly into Roy Hibbert's help-side defense, forcing a kickout to Bosh. I'm cynical of the officiating that tagged James with his fifth foul less than four minutes into the third quarter after Lance Stephenson lassoed and swam past the NBA's ruling king for a loose ball.
I'm afraid Wednesday's victory is going to prolong the denial, the false belief that these Pacers are some sort of rival to Miami, a legitimate threat to win a championship.
But I'm also afraid the Pacers are going to win Games 6 and 7 and advance to the NBA Finals. This too would be a tragedy, because I have not remotely enjoyed the journey. I've spent the past two months hate-watching my favorite team, wondering why Roy Hibbert is soft, Paul George is immature, Lance Stephenson is a troll, Frank Vogel commands no respect and George Hill is an NBA starter.
What's the point of winning 56 games, securing the No. 1 seed in the East and making it to the final four if it creates zero joy, if it inspires little championship swagger?
For three years, it looked as if the Pacers were building toward something big and unforgettable. We were the little-market team that could get it done for about $67 million per year. And now it feels as if we were all delusional. This isn't a championship roster. This is the ninth-best team in the West. This is a team with no superstar and no leadership.
Oh, I know. Paul George scored 31 points in the second half Wednesday night. He was Reggie Miller. Not really. George feasted on Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole, Ray Allen and LeBron's other fill-ins. Foul trouble limited LeBron's minutes and kept him off George until the final two minutes of the fourth quarter. LeBron couldn't put out George's fire. It was too late.
Game 5 did not tell us anything new about George. He's an occasionally dominant player. He still can't pass. He's still childish. His complaints about officiating after Game 4 were embarrassing, an indication of a troubling lack of self-awareness and basketball IQ. Do not misread George's performance in Game 5. He took full advantage of the sloppy officiating that hampered LeBron James. Give George a cookie. Don't place your championship dreams in his questionable hands.
There's little need to spend much time correcting the narrative on Hibbert. We know who and what he is. He's clumsy, slow, emotionally awkward and unreliable. He plays hard only when the Pacers feed him candy in the first quarter. He thinks he's the poor man's 40-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Hibbert is the poor man's 35-year-old Dikembe Mutombo. Hibbert posted good numbers Wednesday night (10 and 13) because Indiana's first-quarter offense featured him. If you have to feed a bad offensive player to get him to rebound and play defense, that's a recipe for trouble. Hibbert is trouble.
What level of trouble is Stephenson? On Wednesday night, he looked like a Ron Artest-Stephen Jackson-Jamaal Tinsley Molotov cocktail. He trolled the Heat and the cameras in Game 5. He blew in LeBron's ear. He chest-bumped Wade to the floor. Stephenson interfered with Erik Spoelstra's huddle. Stephenson is burning money. He has the biggest heart on the Pacers' roster and the least amount of self-control. Only a fool would give him a big contract. Signing Stephenson will be a sign of weakness by some NBA franchise.
He's not Dennis Rodman. You don't get 18 rebounds and once-in-a-generation defensive energy when you tolerate Stephenson's antics. You get 12 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and a lucky victory on a night LeBron scores seven points because of bad officiating. If you can get Stephenson AND those same three refs, Lance is a great free-agent acquisition. If it's just Lance backed by a new $10 million salary, be prepared for him to troll his own team.
The main reason I wanted Bosh's shot to fall is because I want Frank Vogel fired.
The Pacers don't respect him. They don't listen to him. Vogel is weak. His all-positive-reinforcement coaching style spares the rod and spoils his children.
The Pacers did not play a smart game Wednesday night. They did not play with a desperate energy. The game turned when the refs let Stephenson manhandle LeBron at midcourt early in the third quarter. Miami led by eight points when James picked up his fifth foul. Miami was in control. Once LeBron went to the bench, the Pacers gained some heart and energy.
If you rewatch the first half, the Pacers were content to give the game away without putting up a fight. David West failed to even make a play on a 50-50 ball right at his feet. When Indiana's second unit came in, it completely abandoned the inside-out game plan, ignoring Luis Scola's matchup advantage over Shane Battier. There was a four-minute stretch at the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second when the Pacers jacked up six shots from beyond 21 feet. Their lead went from eight to two.
West has a matchup advantage over everyone except James. West took three shots in the first half. You could tell by his lackadaisical effort that he is annoyed by the beginning-of-game pampering of Hibbert.
All of it is a poor reflection on Vogel. The players love him because he doesn't hold them accountable. How else do you explain George and West complaining about the officiating after Game 4? That reflects on Vogel too. What was said in the locker room after Game 4 that would cause veteran players to have the audacity to blame the refs after the sloppy ballhandling display turned in by the Pacers?
"We blew it!" should've been loudly ringing in the ears of George and West. Instead, they blamed the refs.
The Pacers have been living a delusional lie for three years. You can't beat the Heat without a legitimate point guard. You can't beat the Heat with an offensive strategy built around pleasing a 7-footer who averages 10 points and shoots 44 percent from the field. You can't beat the Heat by trolling LeBron James.
I want this to end now. I want Mark Jackson to coach the team next year. I want Stephenson gone before he embarrasses the franchise. And I want a new point guard.
9hMichael C. Wright