MIAMI -- The Indiana Pacers can talk around their biggest problem, they can get creative trying to manage it and they can rest up as much as they want. But the reason they've squandered a perfect chance to win the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs -- the very reason the Miami Heat had a valued chance to take it Friday night -- is the same reason the Pacers' hopes for a championship run this season have eroded.
They have a dysfunctional offense and it's nearly sucked the life out of their season.
This is hardly an original concept; their offensive woes have been documented for some time, but there's really little use in analyzing body language, discussing locker-room chemistry and pointing toward a few marginal midseason additions as if they were some sort of poison.
All of it comes down to their struggle to execute such basic concepts like throwing entry passes, standing in the best spot or setting a screen that actually screens someone. There's sloppiness and poor execution everywhere, and repeated little failures act like wet sand pouring into a bag, dragging the whole operation downward and making everyone surly along the way.
The Pacers have a world-class defense, the sort of strategy matched with personnel matched with togetherness matched with toughness that wins at the highest levels. Yet it's in the process of being wasted because Indiana has no hint of it at the other end, driving a wedge into their team.
"We haven't played well enough to be the top seed," said Pacers veteran David West, a phrase he's actually been repeating lately. "We get what we deserve, I guess."
The Heat were totally ripe for the taking during this regular season. Worn down from three straight Finals runs, older and hyper-focused on keeping Dwyane Wade in bubble wrap, this is the weakest regular-season team the Heat have had in four seasons. LeBron James hasn't lost this often in the past six regular seasons. They were expecting to be overtaken, especially during a March and April during which they've struggled to just stay around .500.
But you can count on the Heat not looking so susceptible in the playoffs, in which they have proven they know how to turn it on and James and Wade have impeccable timing to rise to the occasion. James demonstrated it Friday with Wade sitting again, ripping the Pacers for 36 points in the sort of signature performance he's delivered routinely over the past few postseasons.
"As a competitor, no one wants to finish second," James said as his team took over control of the top seed. "We were here. We had an opportunity to do something, so why not?"
James almost couldn't believe the opportunity was there considering his team was 10-11 in its previous 21 games and Wade hadn't been on the floor since they lost in Indianapolis two weeks ago, when their pursuit of the top seed looked like it was near an end as the Pacers opened up what was essentially a three-game lead.
The chance was there, though, because of situations like the third quarter, when the Pacers didn't put a ball through the basket for eight minutes. They were gifted with a shooting foul when Luis Scola threw himself into Udonis Haslem and then Chris Bosh goaltended a Scola shot. Otherwise, it would've been worse.
It was a 16-0 run -- the type of run the Pacers have been giving up routinely over the past two-plus months as their offense has wheezed -- which is not survivable in a game like this. The result looks like some psychological damage that has left a team loaded with veterans who have playoff experience dangerously fragile. Their collective heads drop when a few bad things happen to them on offense, and bad things happen to them all the time.
Much of the focus squared on Roy Hibbert, the big man who has been in the Heat's thoughts for several years now. The Heat's biggest threat to another title may end up residing in Brooklyn or Chicago, but their offseason moves had everything to do with Hibbert, as they re-signed Chris Andersen and entered into a sensible gamble with Greg Oden that has generally failed.
Hibbert was terrible Friday, scoring just five points and getting just one rebound. It was the worst game he's played against the Heat over the past three seasons. He has just three rebounds in his past three games -- a stretch of more than 80 minutes -- in a turn that has little to do with offense and more to do with effort.
Pointing the finger at just Hibbert, though, is misguided. Time and time again, his teammates failed to get him the ball, bouncing it at his feet or throwing it over his head. The Heat's ball pressure from Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Toney Douglas wrecked the Pacers, who are often so loose with passes that even an outstretched defensive hand can result in the ruining of their possession. Add in their oft-disorganized spacing and their lackluster screens, and often they turn into mush.
Point guard George Hill was missing in action. He didn't take a shot or score a point in 33 minutes of contribution-less basketball. Hill is having a poor season, averaging four fewer points and one fewer assist than a season ago. His shots are down some as Lance Stephenson has become a more involved ball handler, but Chalmers, who makes half Hill's $8 million salary, has routinely outplayed him over the past two seasons.
Getting nothing offensively from your starting point guard and center against the Heat is doom. The details have varied and the guilty have rotated, but this has essentially been the Pacers' recurring story for months now. They might end up getting into each other's faces on the bench and calling each other selfish to the media, but these are all just side effects of the demoralizing inability to do the most basic scoring concepts.
The blame for it can be passed around. Coach Frank Vogel has taken heat, while Stephenson, star Paul George and Hibbert have had their turns in the hot seat for it. All of it is just fruit from the same rotten tree of being unable to put the ball in the basket.
"This is still a good basketball team," Vogel said. "Overall, we feel very confident."
It is not a good basketball team right now. It's a great defensive team and a woeful offensive team, and the mix does not equal good. The Pacers haven't been routinely good for months now.