Observers of the Indiana Pacers’ troublesome second half and postseason have wondered if a proper head examination wasn’t in order. An assessment of Paul George’s concussed noggin wasn’t likely what they had in mind.
With 6:50 left in Tuesday’s 87-83 home loss to Miami that tied the Eastern Conference finals at 1-1, George caught first the calf and then the foot of the Heat’s Dwyane Wade. Splayed face-down on the floor for a good 12 to 15 seconds, George received medical treatment on the sideline and returned to the game, but afterward told reporters that he had “blacked out.” On Thursday, he was practicing in a red do-not-touch jersey, and, more importantly, questionable for Game 3 in Miami after losing a game Indiana should have won.
Expecting the unexpected hasn’t come easy to Pacers fans, but they’re getting the gist: It’s beast or famine. Sunday’s emphatic 107-96 Game 1 win in which Indiana could do no wrong (the team hit 42 percent from 3-point range and went to the foul line 37 times) gave way to a Game 2 effort that was winnable, but, at times, seemed not want-able.
For a good spell, though, the Pacers appeared on their way to a 2-0 series lead, and this was thanks, in large part, to the play of guard Lance Stephenson. George is now a legitimate medical head case, but Stephenson has often been smeared as a figurative one. Or a genius on the floor. Fans are split on Lance. (Pacers duality has no bounds.)
“Born Ready” (Stephenson’s self-given nickname) was anything but the first time the Pacers and Heat mixed it up in the conference semifinals back in 2012 and Miami eliminated Indiana in six. Back then, Stephenson was a bit player, a Larry Bird project whose one shining moment came in Game 3 when he jeered LeBron James after a missed free throw, playing court jester for The King with a pantomimed choke sign. Stephenson logged seven minutes in that entire series and scored just one point. “Lance Stephenson?” James said to the media at the next day’s practice. “You want a quote about Lance Stephenson?”
Cold, yes, but for most of Tuesday it was Stephenson who threw shade, finishing the game with 25 points, six boards and seven assists. And while Stephenson mean-mugged a few times, he was largely under control, particularly on an in-bounds tip-in from 6 feet out with 0.1 on the clock to end the first half.
The Pacers actually led 75-72 with 5:33 left in the game, but Miami went on a 10-0 run to put the game out just out of reach. After being held in relative check by George for most of the game, James scored 12 of his 22 in the fourth quarter. While Wade’s 23 led the Heat, LeBron’s performance was the one that stung.
This wasn’t a vintage James line (50 percent from the floor, 50 percent from free-throw, and 1 3-pointer bucket), but the Heat still head to Miami all even. After months of mess, the Pacers, at times, finally look like the dominant team that steamrolled to the top of the East. But not being able to capitalize when James’ effort was subpar (for him) makes you wonder if Indiana will ever break through that glass ceiling.
But it’s certainly not all bad. Overlooked in the Pacers’ up-and-down playoff ride has been the team’s 5-1 record on the road, a franchise best. Indiana lost its first road game of the first round in Atlanta, but hasn’t lost away from home since.
More importantly, through this entire fit of schizophrenia, Pacers coach Frank Vogel hasn’t wavered or panicked. He stuck with Roy Hibbert through the center’s early-round yips and has never let one game -- bomb or beauty -- define a series.
Ultimately, throughout the playoffs -- the near-catastrophe of the Atlanta series, the bumpy patch with Washington -- it’s been the Pacers who have been Pacers’ greatest enemy.
Tuesday that continued as they turned in another Janus-faced performance. The Roman deity presides over liminal or transitional spaces, like doorways and gates, and is depicted with two faces, one looking forward and the other backward. As the Pacers move toward the threshold of the NBA Finals, the face they see guarding that thruway is their own.
Michael Rubino is a senior editor at Indianapolis Monthly.