Things happen in sports. Things you can't predict, things you don't deserve, things you learn from. Or should, at least. It's what makes games, teams and seasons interesting.
That's pretty much the summary of the Pacers in the calendar year 2014. They began it with supreme confidence and ultimate ambition, experienced a series of disappointments and setbacks, and ended it with unresolved issues and nagging questions – but legitimate hope for better days.
As midnight approached on Dec. 31, 2013, the Pacers were in Toronto, eagerly awaiting a new year and the continuation of a great season. Their record was 25-5 – best in the NBA – after defeating Cleveland earlier in the day at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They were obviously the best defensive team in the NBA, and arguably the best team, period. They were balanced, deep, mature, and cohesive. They had a budding superstar in Paul George, and seemingly another star in the making in Lance Stephenson, not to mention an All-Star center in Roy Hibbert and a former All-Star and still productive player in David West. They also had a former All-Star in the early stages of a promising comeback from injuries in Danny Granger.
They enter 2015 with an 11-21 record. So, clearly, they are completing an eventful year. Here are their top 10 moments of 2014, in chronological order. It's a year the Pacers are happy to see come to an end as they look for a fresh start.
Jan. 27 - Paul George appears on Jimmy Kimmel Live
Paul George was on quite the roll when he made a nationally televised appearance on Kimmel's talk show on this Monday night. He had been named a starter in the All-Star game the previous Friday, and had wowed the country with an incredible 360-degree reverse dunk in a win over the Clippers nine days earlier and was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Jan. 20. The Pacers were in Los Angeles to play the Lakers the following night, and George—who grew up about an hour north of L.A.—took advantage of the opportunity to spread his name and fame.
George handled his appearance smoothly, showing impressive celebrity-like poise for a 23-year-old. But in retrospect it was a foreboding moment, and representative of a new challenge the entire team was facing. He and his teammates were becoming overloaded with national attention that proved to be a distraction. All the magazine covers and national television exposures were chipping away at a team culture that had been as strong as any in franchise history.
Beginning with the loss at Denver two nights before the Kimmel show, George fell into a slump that brought just one good performance over a 10-game stretch in which he averaged 17.5 points on 32.5 percent shooting, and 3.2 turnovers. The game against the Lakers the following night was one of his worst, as he hit just 4-of-21 shot attempts – in a win, however. He made it a point to talk with Kobe Bryant over the All-Star break about handling the pressures and time demands of stardom, and just being around the league's other stars helped reset his outlook.
“I just had a second look on things,” he said later. “When you see a lot of great guys in a group, you kind of learn how to play up to that level. You don't want to lose that level. Looking back and watching those guys, that's the class I want to be part of.
“We're a special team here and I want to be a special player and play at a special level.”
Feb. 1 - Andrew Bynum signs
Team president Larry Bird took a gamble and added another All-Star to the mix when he signed free agent center Andrew Bynum. The Pacers already had a center who would be named to the season's All-Star game in Roy Hibbert, and a capable backup in Ian Manhimi, but Bynum brought another element.
He had been injured, sitting out the previous season in Philadelphia, and was caught up in controversy (again) in a short stint with Cleveland earlier in the season, which traded him to Chicago to unload him. Chicago waived him, making him available to the rest of the league, and Bird got him.
Bynum still needed plenty of rehab on his ailing knees, but made his debut against Boston on March 11. The Pacers were riding a four-game losing streak at the time, with the final three of those games coming by double-figure margins on a three-game road trip. Bynum injected hope for a revival against the Celtics by contributing eight points and 10 rebounds in 15 ½ minutes in a 94-83 victory. His teammates used words like “humongous,” and “enormous” to describe his physical presence, and those words seemed equally appropriate for the impact he could have on the team.
PHOTO GALLERY: Bynum's 2013-14 Season »
Alas, Bynum was able to play in just one more game, an overtime victory at Detroit on March 15, before his knees gave out. Some distant observers would cite his mere appearance on the roster as a reason for the Pacers' late-season struggles, thinking he brought a distraction that affected the play of Hibbert or others. That was a notion that nobody around the team on a regular basis ever believed, and was laughed off or simply denied by the other players. Ultimately, signing Bynum was a small gamble that didn't work out – but could have paid great dividends, based on what he showed in his two appearances.
Feb. 20 - Danny Granger traded for Evan Turner, Lavoy Allen
Granger had entered 2014 with hopes of becoming a vital contributor to a team that had compiled the best record in the league without him. It seemed almost too good to be true for Pacers fans. What if the former All-Star, who had led the team in scoring for five consecutive seasons before knee problems set in, could merely approximate his All-Star level? Whether Granger came off the bench or started and moved Lance Stephenson to the bench, it seemed like an embarrassment of riches.
It didn't work out. Granger rejoined the Pacers on Dec. 20, and showed early signs of being able to make consistent contributions. He scored in double figures eight times in a 10-game stretch from December to mid-January, but slumped after that. In his 29 appearances before the trade deadline, he averaged 8.3 points on 36 percent shooting. He lacked the lift to finish plays around the basket, and his perimeter shooting was erratic.
Bird wasn't desperate to trade him, but Philadelphia offered a deal he couldn't pass on. The Sixers, mired deep in a major rebuilding plan, gave up Evan Turner – the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft – and dependable backup Lavoy Allen for Granger, along with a trade exception, with the intent of waiving Granger immediately to cut costs.
PHOTO GALLERY: Danny Granger's Career Highlights »
Granger went on to finish the season with the Clippers. He averaged 8 points on 43 percent shooting in regular season games, but just 2.6 points on 28 percent shooting in 13 playoff appearances.
Turner, meanwhile, brought uneven play to the Pacers. He averaged 7.1 points on 41 percent shooting, but struggled to play off the bench and in limited minutes. But in the six games in which he played more than 25 minutes, he averaged 17.8 points on 58 percent shooting, and hit 7-of-11 three-point shots.
PHOTO GALLERY: Evan Turner's 2013-14 Season »
“The problem you get into when you do these deals is when you bring guys in that are used to playing 30-35 minutes and are all of a sudden down to 12 or 14, are they going to be able to handle that?” Bird said after the season. “Evan seemed like he had to get into the flow of the game before he really got it going.”
Turner, like Bynum, became the subject of analysis from outsiders who believed he damaged the team's internal chemistry. It didn't appear that way to those around the team, however, who saw him linger in the locker room and socialize with teammates far more often than Granger had done. The option on his rookie contract, however, was too steep for Bird to pick up. He became a free agent and signed with Boston in the off-season.
Allen turned out to be the keeper in the deal. He played well enough in limited minutes to convince Bird to sign him to a new contract, and has been a valuable contributor this season with averages of 7.2 points and 7.5 rebounds in 22.4 minutes per game.
PHOTO GALLERY: Lavoy Allen's 2014 At A Glance »
March 28 - "I'm Tired of Talking About It"
There were a variety of reasons for the Pacers' late-season swoon. As David West would say, they were not experienced front-runners, and let the success – and the national attention that came with it – affect their focus. Just as there were many factors in their 16-1 start, there were many in their 8-13 record leading up to the final two regular season games.
Probably the biggest was Roy Hibbert, who had to make the greatest sacrifice to make room for the emergence of George and Stephenson. Those two took about the same number of shots as the other three starters, and Hibbert was often left out of the offense. He wound up taking 105 fewer field goal attempts than the previous season, despite playing 140 more minutes.
PHOTO GALLERY: Roy Hibbert's 2014 At A Glance »
He aired out his frustration following a loss at Washington on March 28, when he told a national NBA reporter the team had “some selfish dudes in here,” adding “I'm tired of talking about it. We've been talking about it for a month.”
That was the flashpoint for the team's poor finish, but Hibbert actually had spoken about it at greater length and more insight with Pacers.com following a win over Philadelphia on March 17, when he addressed his shrunken role in the offense.
“I can't be selfish,” he said then. “Somebody has to sacrifice. I have to sacrifice for this team. Would anybody like to get 15 shots a game? Yeah. You're a human being and you have feelings, but you have to play through it and do what's best for the team.”
His reduced role and perhaps the attention his quote generated seemed to weigh on Hibbert's confidence. He struggled mightily down the stretch of the season, playoffs included, going scoreless in six of the final 23 games. The Pacers lost three of the four playoff games in which he failed to score. It was a dramatic drop from the previous season, when he had played the best basketball of his career in the playoffs. Remember the guy who averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds against Miami in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals.
Hibbert worked hard in the off-season, on his own and with NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but the results have been mixed so far this season. He enters 2015 with statistics virtually identical to last season, averaging 11 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game.
May 1 - David West saves the season
The Pacers' season was on the brink of disaster on this day, when they were in Atlanta for Game 6 of their first-round series. Trailing 3-2 in the series and 84-79 in the game with three minutes left, West rescued them with a strong finish that brought a 95-88 victory.
West scored 12 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter – eight in the final few minutes – for a resuscitation effort that led to a 92-80 win in Game 7 back in Indianapolis and enabled another run to the Eastern Conference finals.
"He's our rock," Vogel said. “There's no other way to put it.”
May 15 - West does it again
The Pacers led Washington 3-2 in the second round of the playoffs after dropping a home game in the series for the second time, and were in danger of losing again in D.C. But West came through again, scoring 29 points in a 93-80 win that sent them back to the conference finals again, and helped everyone forget the late-season slump.
The Pacers had blown a 16-point second-half lead and were trailing by a point with 8 ½ minutes left when West took charge again. His jumper started a 20-6 run that won the game. He went on to hit 13-of-26 shots and add six rebounds and four assists.
PHOTO GALLERY: David West's 2014 At A Glance »
“When David West has that look, when he's assertive and he demands the ball, I know we're in good hands,” Paul George said. “He's never failed us when he's given us that look and he's told us in the huddles, 'Get me the ball.'”
May 28 - Stephenson blows in LeBron's ear
It wasn't a big deal to LeBron James, and it didn't have impact on the outcome of the game, but for many, the most lasting image of the Pacers in 2014 was Lance Stephenson blowing in James' ear during a dead ball in Game 5 of the conference finals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
PHOTO GALLERY: Lance Stephenson's 2013-14 Season »
The moment was caught on camera and instantly spread to the world and parodies on social media. Just last week, Kevin Garnett reminded everyone of it when he blew – more aggressively – in West's ear in a game in Brooklyn.
Forgotten in all the uproar was that the Pacers won the game, 93-90, to force a Game 6 in Miami. George was sensational with 37 points and a revived Hibbert grabbed 13 rebounds.
Two days later the season ended in Miami, with a 117-92 loss. Contrary to the impression left late in the season, the Pacers won more games (56) and advanced just one less game into the playoffs than the previous season, but the heightened expectations and the fast start made it feel like a disappointment.
July 16 - Stephenson bolts in free agency
The widespread assumption was that Lance Stephenson would stick with the Pacers when the free agency signing period began. He wanted to return, and they wanted him back. But, despite the fact Bird offered every dollar he could without going into luxury tax territory, and a reported video tribute as well, Stephenson took a deal from Charlotte that was only slightly better on an annual basis.
Bird acted quickly when Stephenson's representatives didn't take the initial offer, and didn't respond when asked what they were seeking. He signed C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey to fill spots in the backcourt, and moved on.
Stephenson had averaged 13.8 points on 49 percent shooting, and led the team in rebounding (7.2) and assists (4.6). He also led the NBA in triple-doubles with five, a Pacers' single-season record. But he had been a lightning rod for controversy, with his ear-blowing and dramatic flopping and pelvic gyrations to celebrate big plays.
It hasn't gone well for him so far in Charlotte. He finished 2014 on the inactive list because of a pelvic injury and has averaged just 10.2 points on 39 percent shooting, although he's still rebounding well (6.8). To his credit, according to former Pacers associate head coach Brian Shaw, Lance has been playing hurt most of the season. Recently, he's been the subject of trade rumors, so his future is much cloudier heading into the new year than a year ago.
Aug. 1 - Paul George breaks his leg
It's a memory that will live forever in the minds of Pacers' fans, and a feeling George won't forget.
On this day, while George was participating in a scrimmage for Team USA in preparations for the FIBA World Cup, George chased down a layup by James Harden early in the fourth quarter and crashed into the basket support. His lower right leg snapped in two, a horrific image for all who have seem it. George would later say it felt like someone had set his leg on fire.
PHOTO GALLERY: Paul George Greeted by Pacers Employees Upon Return »
What initially looked like a possible career-ending injury, however, has turned out to be less tragic. George still is expected to miss all of this season, but is expected to make a complete recovery. He hold out a glimmer of hope that he can return late this season, but it's too soon to predict, and impossible to know, how quickly anyone can heal from a major injury. The good news is that he didn't damage ligaments or tendons, and that the bone should grow back stronger than ever.
PHOTO GALLERY: Paul George Shooting During Pregame Warmups »
There's no way for a team to fully make up for the loss of its best player, however, an All-Star starter and candidate to play for the U.S. Olympic team.
Nov. 19 - Pacers beat Hornets at the buzzer
George's injury was foreboding. As the Pacers got into training camp and the exhibition season, he soon had plenty of company on the injured list. West, George Hill, C.J. Watson, Stuckey, Miles and Ian Manhimi all have missed significant time because of injuries and/or illnesses, so much so that the Pacers received a roster exemption to sign a 16th player, A.J. Price.
Their record has suffered for it, but there is the silver lining of developing the bench. Younger players have received more playing time and improved their games, which perhaps will bring dividends later. The highlight of the season so far has been an inspiring November stretch in which the depleted roster won five of seven games, including road wins in Miami, Chicago and Dallas.
The highlight of that stretch, though, was a Nov. 19 game against Charlotte, in Stephenson's return to The Fieldhouse. The Pacers won it 88-86 after Solomon Hill made an acrobatic, backward tip-in after Stephenson had nicked Stuckey's jumper and kept it from hitting the rim. Hibbert had one of his better games of the early season, with 18 points and 11 rebounds, Luis Scola had 15 points while starting for West, and Donald Sloan had one of his many solid games with 11. Stephenson didn't do too much damage to his former team, with 10 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
PHOTO GALLERY: Solomon Hill's 2014 At A Glance »
Hill's play as been one of the positives to come out of the slow start. His defense has been outstanding, creating the possibility of him teaming with George to give the Pacers two of the best wing defenders in the NBA. George Hill is back now and playing well, as is West. Someday, even if it's next season, Paul George will return as well, creating the possibility of putting a group together much like the one that was dominating at this time last year.
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