Dominique Wilkins on Pacers: Their Fate is in Their Own Hands

by Manny Randhawa | @MannyRsports

April 6, 2014

At this point, what’s left to say?

When it didn’t seem possible, things got miserably worse for the Pacers on Sunday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. That’s when they scored a franchise-record-low 23 points in the first half of their contest against the Atlanta Hawks en route to a 107-88 loss that represented their 12th defeat in their last 19 games.

On the day that nightmarish stretch began, Indiana held a 2 1/2 game lead over the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference standings. Following their loss Sunday and a Miami win over the Knicks, the Pacers fell a full game behind the two-time defending champions with five regular season games remaining.

There’s a new “rock bottom” for this team, and it seems that the term itself has become obsolete for this group by virtue of its very definition. Hitting “rock bottom,” of course, would imply that there is nowhere to go but up.

Has there ever been a team so good that had such a definitive and devastating late-season collapse?

“Not in this point in a season,” said Dominique Wilkins, a superstar who had a 16-year Hall-of-Fame career and is now a television color commentator for Atlanta. “Not this point in a season where you hit a low, and particularly at home. Your starting lineup had 13 points in a half. In a half. I’ve never seen that.”

Wilkins and his Hawks came within one game of the Eastern Conference finals in 1988 after Atlanta won 50 games that season, but fell at the hands of the Boston Celtics in seven games. In all, he played in 56 career playoff contests over 10 different seasons. He said that based on what he’s seen Indiana could be vulnerable as early as the opening round of the playoffs later this month.

“I think they’ve got some problems they need to figure out right now,” Wilkins said. “Because they’re struggling not just from an offensive standpoint, but I think from a mental standpoint they’re struggling. If they don’t figure it out soon, they’re gonna have problems in the first round.”

Wilkins added that he sees a team that is undergoing an identity crisis at the worst possible time.

“They’ve gotta find who they are very quickly,” he said. “If they don’t, they’re gonna have problems in the first round. They have to (find themselves). You’re an elite team in the East; you’re in the top two teams in the conference, you’re fighting for playoff advantages, and this is not the same team we played months ago.”

The team that the Hawks played earlier in the season, of which the current group barely resembles in outward appearance only, defeated Atlanta 89-85 on the road on Feb. 4 and 108-98 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Feb. 18. And while you may see the same men walking onto the court each successive game, that team does not exist today. Whether it returns before it’s too late is the burning question looming over Frank Vogel’s squad every second, minute, hour and day as the postseason approaches.

Sunday’s debacle was stunning, even considering all the struggles this team has endured over the past several weeks. The Pacers shot 20 percent in the first half. Vogel benched the starting five with 6:05 to play in the first quarter. Boos were once again heard at The Fieldhouse, the loudest as Indiana went into the locker room trailing by an incredible 32 points at halftime.

“There’s no NBA team that has a half like that,” Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think that it’s sometimes you catch a break or you catch somebody when it’s just not falling, and you never anticipate or never think that’s going to happen.”

No one could have anticipated this. We don’t know what is being said in private among the Pacers, and we do know that this team is still at a loss for what ails it. Wilkins said what the Pacers need to understand, however complex their issues are, is simple.

“Eventually, as the coach you’ve got to say: It’s up to you guys,” he said. “Do you guys wanna go home? Or do you wanna try to advance in the playoffs and try to become a championship team?”

Prior to the All-Star break, the story of the 2013-14 Indiana Pacers was one of a defensive-minded, smash-mouth team with a serviceable offense that could ride that combination all the way to the top under the guidance of a brilliant young coach. They were the storybook squad: young at the core, cohesive as a unit, and determined to reach the apex of the NBA right away after glimpsing such heights against the league’s best team last summer.

Today the same team is unrecognizable. It’s startlingly poor performance is beyond slump status, beyond a lull or a bad stretch. Whatever happened to this promising group has infected it deeply, and the sand in the hour glass has nearly all reached the bottom.

In two weeks, time will be up, and if things don’t change drastically between now and then, Wilkins’ words will haunt the Pacers until October.

“You’ve been talking about being a championship team all year long,” he said. “This ain’t it.”

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