The Indiana Pacers were in a fighting mood the day before the 2014 NBA playoffs started. Unfortunately, they were fighting themselves.
Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner got into a scuffle during practice, according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, and had to separated by teammates David West and Luis Scola. Turner walked away from practice with a cut.
The fistfight is symbolic of how the last three months have gone for the Pacers.
They have gone from being title contenders to punchlines on social media, and the hits just keeps on coming. The Pacers, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, are in a dogfight with the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, who finished with a sub-.500 record during the regular season.
On paper, this first-round series should be an easy one to predict. The big, bad Pacers against the undersized Hawks. But somehow, the paper got wet as the Hawks are looking like the contenders and the Pacers are acting like a bunch of pretenders.
Pacers All-Star Paul George summed it up best after his team lost Game 3 to fall behind 2-1 in the series. He said, “Our toughness is questionable right now.”
That’s a bold statement coming from the team’s best player.
Toughness was supposed to be the Pacers’ calling card. It was the foundation of their vaunted defense. George and Co. had the second-best defense in the NBA this past season, and they have a roster loaded with Ruff Ryders.
But sometimes having physical toughness doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have mental toughness. That’s where the problem lies with the Pacers. Between the ears.
Confidence is a fragile thing, and it’s hard to get it back once you lose it.
Right now, the Pacers have lost their swagger. Instead of walking around with their heads held high, they’re looking around for excuses when things go wrong. And the guy on their team that has lost his mojo is 7-2 center Roy Hibbert.
When Indiana coach Frank Vogel was asked if Hibbert will start Game 4 against the Hawks, Vogel said: “We’ll see.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
“He’s our anchor,” Vogel said. “We won 56 games with him as a starter. We’ll see. Probably.”
You can understand Vogel’s hesitation when the subject of benching his “anchor” came up. It’s a tough call. Benching Hibbert could have a domino effect. He could lose Hibbert mentally for the rest of the playoffs. He could alienate the rest of the team. He could also save the Pacers from elimination.
The Hawks and their perimeter-oriented offense is a bad matchup for Hibbert. His forte is protecting the rim, but if the Hawks are staying away from the rim then there’s no need to have rim protector. Hibbert looks like a fish out of water guarding Hawks center Pero Antic, who prefers to drift outside the 3-point line. It’s a terrible matchup for him.
One solution is to start Hibbert but pull him after 3-4 minutes, and insert Luis Scola at center to team up with West. Scola has been much more effective than Hibbert in the Hawks series and arguably the Pacers’ second-best player at the moment.
But Hibbert is just one part of the multiple issues the Pacers need to address.
The starters look gassed and Vogel may need to reach out to his bench to stay afloat.
Indiana also has too many ball-stoppers on the floor and not enough shooters. Spreading the floor could open up lanes for George to drive and kick.
But mainly, the Pacers need to address their locker room. They are a fractured group. They have two guys in Stephenson and Turner looking for the their next contracts. That’s likely why they were fighting. They’re both after the same thing and they will go through each other to get it.
Money is the root of all evil.
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.