Once upon a not-too-distant time, when they were the talk of the NBA, it seemed certain this installment of the Indiana Pacers was destined to be the best in franchise history.
Six weeks later, on the eve of the playoffs, the only certainty about this team’s legacy is that it is very much undetermined. Ignominious or glorious, it will be one or the other. Both avenues are wide open.
The Pacers’ late swoon has raised concerns about where they are headed. They are the top seed in the Eastern Conference but could just as easily be first-round casualties as East champions.
There is compelling evidence for either scenario.
The Pacers started 33-7 but are 16-15 since Feb. 12.
They had the NBA’s best record for much of the first three-fourths of the season but take the fourth-best mark into the playoffs.
They finished with the second-best record in team history (56-26) but fell well short of the franchise record of 61 wins.
They had the league’s best home record (35-6) but were blasted 107-88 in Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 6 by their first-round opponent, the Atlanta Hawks.
So with this group, anything is possible. But anything short of the East title will bring major disappointment.
Ordinarily, 56 wins would be cause for celebration. The Pacers have reached that total only one other time. But in light of how they started, the regular-season tally seems less than it could — or should — have been.
That said, the most recent time the Pacers won 56 games was in 1999-2000. Larry Bird coached that team. It won the East and finished runner-up to the L.A. Lakers in a 4-2 NBA Finals series that was much more competitive than the figure reflects.
Indiana hasn’t won the East since. It finished a franchise-record 61-21 in 2003-04 but lost a 4-2 series to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference Finals. A bit of a letdown to be sure, but not unpardonable for an up-and-coming team that was under the first-year direction of Rick Carlisle (the “unpardonable” offenses began the following year, starting with The Brawl).
Fairly or unfairly, the Pacers won’t receive a pass from fans if they don’t win the East. There was too much talk, too quick a start and too many wins too early to dial back expectations now.
For months, long before training camp, the mantra was the No. 1 seed, home-court advantage and Game 7s at home — the single necessary tool to dismantle Miami. Well, the Pacers have it. How they employ it is up to them.
As the No. 1 seed indicates, the Pacers are — or at least can be — a dominant team. They were right up to the All-Star break. But as the post-break skid illustrates, they are — or at least can be — taken down by anyone.
Although much has been made about the slide, it is worth noting that Indiana does take a two-game winning streak into Saturday’s Game 1. One of those victories was a quality outing against visiting Oklahoma City. The other was a meaningless backup-fueled triumph at lottery-bound Orlando.
Which Pacers will show up for the playoffs? If it’s the pre-break Pacers, buckle up for a fun ride. If it’s the other version, get ready for a letdown.
Here’s hoping for the former but not discounting the latter.
If the Pacers have shown us nothing else in 82 games, it’s that anything is possible.
Rick Morwick is the sports editor of the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.