Season on the brink

Once a juggernaut in the making, the Pacers are in serious jeopardy of being sent packing in Round 1. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

End times. Oceans of blood. Famine and plague. The appearance of NBA fans in Atlanta. Dark days, these, especially for the Indiana Pacers.

It’s hard to pinpoint when the rapture hit -- the Pacers were kind of busy sunning themselves in a franchise-best 16-1 start, GQ spreads and All-Star appearances. Now the team that many pegged to unseat the Miami Heat and represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals faces the possibility of final judgment in a win-or-go-home game Thursday night in Atlanta against the Hawks.

If you think the last two minutes of an NBA game last an eternity, consider the unremitting existence of the Pacers in the second half of the season and playoffs. The Pacers went 16-14 after the All-Star break and won only four times in their last 10 games heading into the postseason, even as the No. 1 seed hung in the balance.

That final stretch included an embarrassing 107-88 home loss to a team that for most of the season flirted with the lottery, the Hawks. It was a harbinger of things to come. In Game 5, playing at home with a chance to turn a corner in the series, the Pacers were outplayed by the Hawks at every position except one: the fetal.

For fans, it’s all felt like strange, soulless limbo, rooting for a team that on a game-to-game basis flickers between not-quite dead and not-quite alive, like a collection of really tall extras from "The Walking Dead."

The prospect of such an apocalyptic collapse has sent writers searching for historical parallels, but there don’t appear to be any. Cleveland’s 2010 NBA playoff series with Boston possesses some of the rag-doll theatrics but doesn’t carry the weight of a potential first-round exit.

It has proved fruitless to even compare this manifestation of the Pacers to, say, the Pacers of just a few months ago. Remember when Paul George was on the verge of being one of the two or three best players in the NBA? Remember when Frank Vogel was considered one of the league’s brightest young coaches and tapped to helm the Eastern Conference All-Stars? Remember when Roy Hibbert was an All-Star center? An NBA center?

Funny how fast things change. Vogel is supposedly coaching for his job. Hibbert has become the world’s tallest cheerleader, spending long spells on the bench against the Hawks, which give him matchup problems. And on the night of the Game 5 loss, George -- who has played well in the series but hasn’t transcended those lofty expectations -- had his home broken into and All-Star ring stolen. Some have joked it was repossessed. (If that’s the case, Hibbert might want to check his personal effects too.) Even Larry Bird, the architect of this team and local legend, hasn’t been immune to criticism, though most of it has been deferential and polite. I respect Larry, but ...

Why it’s reached this point is anyone’s guess. One local writer pitched the idea that an autopsy of what is now still thankfully just a gathering collapse might make for an excellent “30 for 30” installment. No one has been able to offer a plausible meta-theory for the fall-off, and none of the smoking guns -- a locker-room fight, rumors of players vying for the affection of the same woman, the trade of popular Danny Granger -- have hit the target. The best explanation? The simplest one: The team is immature and ill-equipped to handle success.

Yet despite everything that has occurred, there remains the sense that this team can right itself, that redemption seems possible. By and large, the Pacers fan base isn’t made up of extremists calling to raze the barn and scorch the earth. But fans here are fundamentalists who like flinty defense, floor-burn hustle and the extra pass. We finally got glimpses of that Saturday in Game 4, when the Pacers evened the series with a 91-88 win, and behold, it was very good. But if the team can’t muster that type of effort in Game 6, there will no more limbo -- and probably hell to pay.

Michael Rubino is a senior editor at Indianapolis Monthly.