The Pacers are staring into the playoff abyss, down to what could be their last game.
The Pacers are coming up on their expiration date with this collection of players as they make one final run at the NBA Finals.
Reggie Miller becomes a free agent July 1, as do Jalen Rose, Rik Smits, Mark Jackson and Austin Croshere.
Smits, who was talked out of retirement after last season, is old and tired, almost frail, and spends almost as much time mopping the floor with his body as he does in the upright position in the low post.
Jackson taunts the 24-second shot clock as he butt-bumps his way to the low post, breeding a stagnation on offense that is counterproductive.
Rose is juggling a tricky team dynamic with Miller. Is it now Rose’s team or still Miller’s team, or are Rose and Miller really more suited to be No. 2-type guys on a championship-serious team?
Chris Mullin is playing garbage minutes these days, if he plays at all, and Sam Perkins is nearing the end as well. The Pacers are past the tinkering stage. One way or the other, Larry Bird is out the coaching door after the season.
The Pacers are the most enigmatic elite team in the NBA. When they are bad, as they have been in the two losses to the Bucks, they are really bad. They don’t look like a team that compiled a 56-26 record during the regular season. They don’t look like the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Instead, they look hopelessly inept on defense and hopelessly limited on offense. They look like a team whose window of opportunity to claim a championship was closed two years ago by the Bulls.
The ‘98 Pacers team pushed Michael Jordan and the Bulls to seven games. That is the one playoff series the Pacers can rue to this day. They were in it to the end, even in Game 7, until Jordan began his whistle-inducing forays to the basket late in the game.
The Pacers have the moxie to win a lot of little games. They don’t necessarily have a blunt instrument to win a short series, depending on the 34-year-old Miller, who becomes more inconsistent as he becomes older.
The Bucks are the opposite. They are not built to win 50-plus games during the regular season, not as long as Ervin Johnson is the starting center and Darvin Ham is one of the starting forwards. But they have three gifted weapons on the perimeter in Ray Allen, Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson, plus sixth man Tim Thomas. The Bucks have what it takes to win a short series, to ride their outside shooting.
An 82-game season inevitably exposes a team’s weaknesses in the middle and wears on a shooter’s legs. A five-game series poses no such threat to shooters, and Smits, Croshere and Dale Davis have been either inadequate or only modestly successful against the Bucks’ impersonators in the three-second lane.
When Scott Williams accumulates 20 points and eight rebounds in 25 minutes, as he did against the Pacers in Game 4, that is a fairly alarming development.
The Pacers have been stuck as the best of the playoff also-rans going back to Larry Brown’s days on the bench. The Pacers have advanced to the conference finals in four of the past six seasons.
In a way, they have been the Eastern Conference’s version of the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference, only they don’t have the Jazz’s two appearances in the NBA Finals.
The Pacers have something in common with the Bucks of the mid-‘80s. Those Bucks teams were awfully good. The 1985 Bucks team won 59 games. But those Bucks teams couldn’t solve the Celtics or the 76ers in the conference finals.
More and more, the Pacers seem destined to have an unrequited end. They have been on this journey since losing to the Knicks in seven games in the conference finals in 1994. They lost to the Magic in seven games in the conference finals the next season. They lost in the conference finals to the Bulls two years ago and to the Knicks last season.
Now the Pacers, their fuel tank almost on empty, are being pushed to the limit by the Bucks.
For the Pacers, this Game 5 means everything, either the end or perhaps the beginning of a more appealing legacy.