It is hard to get the analogy for the Indiana Pacers right, or find the right comparison without spraining your simile ligament. There are groups of artists who like being together, but make bad, fun things, like the cast of Ocean's Eleven. There are unevenly balanced ensembles like Destiny's Child, or groups that collapse under the weight of their own chaos like the Wu-Tang Clan, and absolute shambolic heap-beast supergroup efforts like The Expendables that, anticipating your disappointment already, make no effort whatsoever to be anything but a total horrendous and ultimately amiable disaster from start to finish.*
*By the fifth Expendables movie, anyone will be theoretically eligible to participate, which is how you'll get Delta Burke strafing a terrorist camp in a helicopter piloted by a grinning hologram Paul Walker.
So you can just stop trying. There may be no precedent or accurate comparison for this Indiana team, or how well and horribly they're ending their season. They may be something brave and new: the team so talented even its outright civil war couldn't kill it or its playoff run.
The toxic fart-cloud killing the Pacers' best abilities swept into the locker room sometime after the All-Star break, watering eyes and flattening their torrid first-half momentum in a stagnant 16-14 finish. On paper what has happened since looks like triumph: a pair of series victories over the Hawks and Wizards, and what will likely be an Eastern Conference Finals loss to the defending NBA champs. Any other team in the NBA would mark that as a victory, or at least as a success.
To the naked eye, though, it's not totally clear how any of this happened, or that anyone on the Indiana Pacers likes playing the game of basketball, either alone or with their teammates. This happened last night, in an NBA game, in front of cameras and a full arena:
It could be unfair to single out Lance Stephenson here if this were not the second-most iconic image of the Pacers this season. (The first is Cymbalta Roy Hibbert, but we'll get to him.) Stephenson spent most of the night doing this, finishing with nine points after suggesting LeBron James engaging him in trash-talk was "a sign of weakness" before the game, and thus giving the easy hook for the media to hang Indiana's sad hairshirt of failure onto in postgame columns.
That would be a shame, because hanging Indiana's astonishing anti-basketball and its long implosion would be cheating the awful greatness of what they have become. Watch David West's face for 10 minutes of any game. He is a man who is playing blackjack with dogs. He is a dad at 6:45 p.m. left alone with the kids for a day. He is a substitute teacher in sixth period with a severe hangover, he is a cabbie dealing with four drunks who need to be left at four, hazily remembered places that might not exist, he is an astronaut low on oxygen who just broke the door handle off the airlock. David West, despite having all his paperwork and showing up extra early for traffic court, will not get to see the judge today, and has to call his wife to pick him up because his license is still suspended.
And West isn't even the star of the ensemble here.
Another game, another image of Roy Hibbert wishing he were literally any other place in the world. pic.twitter.com/hpzhqDe6tA— SB Nation (@SBNation) May 27, 2014
What has happened to Roy Hibbert is a matter of total speculation. Scientifically, it can be approached this way: Hibbert is now half the size he was statistically, and appears to be shrinking. Last night, he was a scoring nullity, attempting only four field goals and missing all of them while chipping in a perfunctory five rebounds. This is, for this particular playoffs, nothing new: Hibbert has failed to score at all in four of the Pacers' 17 playoff games.
Hibbert could write the word "SORROW" on his forehead in magic marker, but that would be too obvious, and ruin the strongest performance here in an already strong cast of malcontented dudes who clearly hate everything. He is so very close to cutting up cans of Lone Star beer and making little figurines out of them on the sidelines to explain why existence is the ultimate in the grotesque. He is seconds away from reading a Jonathan Franzen novel on the bench.
Heat vs. Pacers
You might condemn them for this massive display of human frailty. You would be missing just how remarkable this team is, though, if you obscured the view of this monster with your judgment. Just look at it: a team often incapable of scoring double digits in a quarter stocked with men who clearly hate something about the other men on the team that still managed to get to the Eastern Conference Finals. It is a new high water mark of perverse professionalism when you look at the Pacers from that angle: that they've never really stopped playing defense, hitting shots when they needed to (up to this point, at least) and somehow advancing to the next round while looking like the worst team in the playoffs. Somehow, they're still trying, and often succeeding.*
*Even last night, in the midst of a blowout, Indiana cut the lead to a feasibly threatening nine points. With real effort and basketball and stuff!
They are clearly not the NBA's best team as they were at one point in the season. They are, however, the most compelling, a team so unhappy they make their own pissy emotional gravity and suck you in for a night of hatewatching their absolute disgust for each other, the game of basketball, you, the viewer, and possibly the very existence of human life on this planet, which at this point Roy Hibbert probably views as an error best extinguished by a random meteor or roaming black hole. They are the best worst team in the NBA, and there is a word for this. You are the bworst basketball team in the world, Indiana, a collection of people so talented the universe had to invent a new strain of emotional plague to keep you from taking over the world.