- Scoop Jackson, ESPN.com columnist
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Let's start here: When did it really begin to fall apart for the Pacers?
That's question No. 1. As the NBA prepares itself for its annual entry into Season 2, there are questions that are always left unanswered. In the case of the Indiana Pacers -- who have now generated more unanswered questions than any playoff team in the NBA -- there are so many questions it is almost impossible to know where to begin. What caused the Pacers' spiral? What effect will it have on them once the playoffs begin? Can they recover?
It's not at all as if the Pacers are alone. Far from it. Every team has lingering and irritating questions that they are distancing themselves from or in search of solving. Most won't. The attempt here is not to so much answer these questions as much as it is to acknowledge their presence. (It's become well known over the years that once the playoffs begin a whole new set of unanswered questions will surface.)
And it's usually the team that has separated itself from or escaped all unanswered questions as the team left standing in the end.
• (Damn the Pacers) What's really wrong with the Heat? While Indiana may be 4-6 in its past 10 games and seeming like a team that can't seem to figure it out, the Heat also have been 4-6 over the past 10. Miami also has not looked good in two losses against the Nets and the Grizzlies and worse in the three losses in a row (after a win against the Pacers) to end the season. The only reason the Pacers still were able to finish with the best record in the East is because during the time they were playing their worst basketball of the season, so was Miami.
Since March 1, the Heat are 13-14. And it's more than Dwyane Wade's injury and being a man down; it's everything except LeBron. They seem uninspired, unenthused and unconcerned. That is a bad combination for a team trying to cement its place in the game's history. So what exactly is wrong with the Heat? Damn near everything. The only thing saving them from being spoken about in the same light as the Pacers is the fact that they've won the past two rings. That makes us give them a pass and allows them to act like the question above is a non-question.
• Are the Warriors really the most underachieving -- and unstable -- team in the NBA? To find out what's really going on in the Bay, you'd have to be on the GSW payroll. Their season has been like a soap opera. Part "GH," part "Scandal," part "Game of Thrones." And beyond underachieving and unstableness, there are questions of loyalty, organizational stability, job security, team unity and differences in basketball philosophies. All because expectations were so high coming in.
Besides the "What's really going on with the Warriors?" question that they can't avoid, even with losing Andrew Bogut indefinitely, is the "Will the drama hovering around the Warriors affect them in the playoffs?" question that will be the first one answered once they lose. One website even had them as one of the five most disappointing teams in the NBA this season. The team finished 20 games over .500, 10th in points scored per game, 9th in points allowed, 5th in rebounds and 7th in assists, had their first 50-win season in 20 years and they finished above third in the Pacific for the first time since 1992. Yet, questions. Those damn expectations.
• Are the Blazers legit or fake? The word "fake" is such an overused term. The only word more overused and used more inappropriately is, of course, "legit." But in use with the Blazers, both words fit like James Franco and social media. Every year they seem to be that team that is on the verge of doing something special, but then they don't. This season -- the way they came out the blocks, sorta like the Western Conference version of the Pacers -- it seemed like things were going to be different. Psych. So wrong. Once again, as the playoffs jump off and the Blazers cannot be defined. On paper, they are so complete it's like watching "Oculus" (frightening). Some nights, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard can be as good together as Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Wesley Matthews has been playing at a "most improved player of the year" level all season. Robin Lopez is the perfect center for the system Terry Stotts runs. The Blazers can say to every team, "our role players are better than your role players;" and their bench is far past solid. Still, questions. With the Blazers, could it be another "it is what it is" finish? Which means, "they are who they are." And we still somehow have no idea who that is.
Is Kawhi Leonard man enough to take Manu's role with the Spurs? Someone had to say this. Or at least ask the question. Personally, especially after the way Ginobili finished in the Finals, I thought Leonard was going to come into this season on a takeover mission. Challenge Gregg Popovich's loyalty, make him rethink who he needs to put trust in as Option 3 in the Spurs offense and turn the Big 3 into the NBA's only Big 4. But somehow that never happened. Leonard, who Charles Barkley continually says is one of the 10-15 best players in the NBA, played his current role to perfection and the use of "potential" is still attached to his name the way it has been for the last three years. It takes a ballsy ball player to do what is being suggested. Someone who is usually not found on a Popovich built team. But someone needs to be like Stephen Jackson. Someone needs to be like Mario Elie. Someone needs to be like Sean Elliott. Someone needs to buck the embedded system and prove that even among Hall-Of-Famers he is as responsible as anyone else for another championship parade in San Antonio. And the only player left to be that player is Leonard. It's just a question of whether he has it in him.
• Will Kevin Durant be the same KD in the playoffs that he's been all season (Or will the KD who defers to/shares the spotlight with Russell Westbrook return)? Just like above: Someone had to ask it. Durant locked the MVP up somewhere in the middle of January and from that point on throughout the rest of the season -- even once Westbrook returned -- he not only restructured the dynamics of how OKC plays but also how we think of him as a player. He even teased us with a "better than LeBron" conversation that lasted for about six weeks, which hadn't been done since Kobe Bryant won his last ring. But, as evidenced in the Thunder's late-season win against the Clippers, OKC still co-depends -- in big games -- on Westbrook. That "alpha dog, Aloe Blacc, I'm The Man" mentality that we all felt Durant had established over this season might disappear strictly based on the reality that Westbrook is who Westbrook is, and the Thunder are better off with him being that than being passive or playing secondary to KD. And (please keep this in mind) Russell missed most of the playoffs last season, so he's more than likely going to be in full make-up-for-lost-time mode once these playoffs begin, which will put Durant's new state of basketball existence in jeopardy and in question.
• How do the Raptors win? We still don't know. May never know.
• Houston? Still don't know. Will never know.
• Is there any true reason for all other teams in the league to be afraid of the Nets? This may be the one where a true answer exists. Based on what the Nets have shown ever since Jason Kidd stopped wearing ties, they are that team that can -- again can, not will - behave like the UConn men and take out higher seed after higher seed en route to a seven-game series version of survival and advancement. When asked if the Nets are the Heat's biggest threat after being the only team to beat Miami four times this season, LeBron laughed it off. His "get outta here... next question" to Craig Sager (http://espn.go.com/blog/new-york/brooklyn-nets/post/_/id/17621/nets-laugh-off-lebrons-chuckle?ex_cid=espnapi_public) could have been all the ancillary ammo the Nets needed to will (excuse me, I meant "D-Will") themselves into the conference finals.
More than talent, big names and the fact that they've seemed to finally found the ground under them, the Nets have one incentive that no other team left standing has: to prove that what happened to them in last year's playoffs will not happen to them ever again. No team went out like they did. Calling it an embarrassment is an embarrassment to being embarrassed. Over the course of dealing with that and surviving the loss of Brook Lopez this season, the Nets have developed a sense of pride and purpose that matches the arrogance of the people in neighborhoods that surround the Barclays Center. Their whole mentality is Drake. Telling themselves they started from the bottom and now they are here. How long they'll be here is unsure. But the team they face once they get out of the first round should be scared. Very, very scared.
• Are the Wizards the team that no one in the East wants to see? In certain games, when it's all clicking, the Washington Wizards can look like a team that will take out any one of the top four seeds in the East. John Wall (who has two NBA Players of the Week honors this season, which is as many as LeBron and Paul George have), often times, plays as if he's one of the best point guards in the NBA. But because he's in D.C. on a team that is eternally overlooked no one seems to notice. Or care. Bradley Beal, often times, plays as is if he's a better shooter and better overall two guard than Klay Thompson. But because Beal's in D.C. on a team that is barely playing above .500, no one seems to notice. Or give a damn. They have legit (there goes that word again) man in the middle in Marcin Gortat who can actually eliminate match-up advantages that the Bulls and Pacers (possibly in the next round) could have against them. And a bench full of vets, including Andre Miller, Al Harrington, Martell Webster and Drew Gooden that only have to have one good game apiece to pull young team through a playoff series no one -- especially the team they are playing -- expects them to win. There's one other scary item that needs to be pointed-out: The Wizards went 12-10 since Nene, their power forward and overall difference-maker/x-factor, went down. He's baaaaaack. By getting the fifth seed and avoiding playing the defending champs in the first round, the team they face next in the second round (if they get past the Bulls) should be worried. Very, very worried.
• Who will win the fight between Blake Griffin and Serge Ibaka? Not predicting that it will happen, but the build-up (and guilty-pleasured hope) for it to happen is Pacquiao/Bradley II undercard-ish. As PC as the NBA wants to be and as irresponsible (and damaging) as any actual fight in the playoffs can be, this one -- even if less than four punches are thrown -- is needed. Both players also just need to get it out of their systems. The days of anticipating a classic power forward brawl is missed. Players don't fear one another the way players once feared Maurice Lucas or Xavier McDaniel. A Charles Oakley versus Charles Barkley incident (circa 1996) between Griffin and Ibaka would boost interest and ratings and almost make the new regime in the NBA look genius for not warning the players not to fight before the inevitable potential matchup between Oklahoma City and the Clippers happens. OK, I know that the entire premise of this is ignorant. And I am in no way trying to condone or predict that a fight between these two ensues. I'm just asking a question. A question that will more than likely and unfortunately remain unanswered.
• Will the weight of "carrying" the Heat catch up to LeBron? The whole "This is Cleveland all over again" thing is real, and if the Heat don't find a way to up their overall level of play soon, they are going to have a hard time explaining how it got this bad -- and a harder time next year convincing LeBron to stay. They have done a good job of masking their imbalance. As much credit should go to Eric Spoelstra as it does LeBron for getting by as far and as long as they have playing virtually one-on-five most of the season. That soon may come to an end. Either LeBron is going to hit a wall that he can't bust through or teams just aren't going to allow one player to beat them. Not four times in 10 days. LeBron's rebound and assist numbers are down from last year, which can directly be attributed to fatigue. His PER has dropped from 31.6 to 29.4: fatigue. After going through last season only losing two games where they at some point held double-digit leads, this year they lost eight. They went from winning 66 games last season to 54. Even their attendance position has dropped from third in the league last season to fourth this season. It all adds up to a defending champion being extremely vulnerable because (for whatever reason) only one man came prepared to defend a title this year. The question is, how much longer can that man continue to defend a title while everyone stands around and watches?
• When did it all fall apart for the Pacers? (Or has it?) Try to pinpoint when it all began to fall apart. I did. Still couldn't find an answer. Was it after Frank Vogel won coach of the month to open the season? Was it at some point after that "make or break" (David West's words) six-game stretch when they came out 4-2 after playing the Clippers, Blazers, Jazz, Spurs, Thunder and Heat? Was it at the turn of the new year when they were 25-5 and proceeded to lose as many games in the month of January as they had so far the whole season? Was it when Andrew Bynum joined the team? Was it when they finally traded Danny Granger? Was it when Evan Turner joined the team as a result of that trade? Was it before that, when Paul George made the All-Star team or made his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, or when George's Gatorade commercial went national? Was it when George addressed what he calls "fake" rumors of being catfished? Was it when the totality of instant fame hit George and it seemed like he couldn't handle it? Was it when George Hill realized that he wasn't cool being the fifth wheel? Was it when Lance Stephenson and Roy Hibbert fell off of the same page? Was it when Hill, Luis Scola and Hibbert all seemed to stop playing at the ultra-high level they started out the season playing? Was it when Hibbert publicly admitted that they "didn't deserve" being the top seed and need to "go to group therapy?" Or was does it go back to the beginning? When Brian Shaw left? Or ... was the whole beginning of the season a mirage, and the 0-5 team that showed itself to begin the preseason is closer to who they really are?
Questions trouble many teams in the playoffs -- especially the No. 1 seeded Pacers, who ended the season on a 4-6 run, Scoop Jackson writes.