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NBA Sunday: The Demise of a Would-Be Champ?

The Indiana Pacers may be finished, which is bad for the Eastern Conference … The big key to Houston’s first round success ..

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Prior to the start of the 2013-14 NBA season you couldn’t find too many analysts who didn’t pick the Indiana Pacers to come out of the Eastern Conference this season, and not a single one would have told you the Pacers would fall anywhere short of the conference finals. They walked of the court at the end of last year’s conference finals looking like a team that was ready to take the next step. They were deep, confident, and their leader – Paul George – looked poised to take the NBA by storm.

They started the season that way, too, staking their claim on the East’s top spot and looking like a lethal threat to the Miami HEAT’s bid to win three straight championships behind the play of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

And then the trade deadline came.

Concerned about Danny Granger’s knee and how well it would hold up during a long postseason run, Pacers president Larry Bird pulled the trigger on a deal that landed Evan Turner as part of a package deal that sent Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers. The move made a great deal of sense on the surface, as Turner was leading the Sixers in scoring and seemed to be a great fit for a team looking for a second unit impact scorer.

What Bird could not have anticipated was the emotional wasteland he created when he traded Granger without so much as a powwow with the team that had come to think of him as a best friend, big brother and confidante. Bird could never have guessed that the subtraction of Granger, whose contributions on the court had been negligible, would transform his team from a tough, smart, hungry contender into a team that could barely figure out which sport they were supposed to be playing.

Since the deadline Roy Hibbert, once an All-Star, has done a solid impersonation of Hasheem Thabeet, even calling out his teammates as “selfish” as he himself wandered aimlessly around the court instead of dominating the paint. George looked decidedly less MVP-like, playing so poorly that some even questioned if last season was a flash in the pan for the Pacers’ new franchise player. Meanwhile, Turner was nothing short of terrible, struggling mightily to fit into the Pacers’ winning culture and even seeming to bring it down to his level.

Head coach Frank Vogel tried valiantly to restore his team’s focus and swagger, chastising them or airing their issues publicly, giving them time off to try and shake their funk, and by the season’s last two games there were signs that perhaps the Pacers would find themselves in time for the postseason.

If Game 1 is any indication, however, nothing has been fixed in Indiana. It was the underdog and visiting Atlanta Hawks who threw the first punch, using a 16-2 run to take charge in the first quarter and even managing to dominate the glass despite glaring size disadvantages. The Pacers battled back to tie the game at halftime, but the Hawks blew them out as the third quarter got underway. By the time the fourth quarter came along, the Pacers were spending more energy yelling and glaring at each other to even notice that Atlanta was putting the finishing touches on a brilliant win.

The worst part of Indiana’s demise, if they are finished, is the wide-ranging consequences for the Eastern Conference. The Pacers, the pre-deadline Pacers, were the only team that had any prayer of challenging Miami. If the Pacers allow their self-imposed stupor to cause a first round elimination, the HEAT won’t even have to play well to advance to the NBA Finals. It will render the Eastern Conference Finals meaningless, and that’s simply not a good thing for the NBA, which already suffers from an extreme lack of competitiveness in the East.

Then again, maybe there is still hope for Indiana. Perhaps Bird could order up a FatHead of Granger, or perhaps have a cardboard cut-out of him made up to position near the Pacers’ bench. Apparently Granger’s mere presence was enough to make the Pacers contenders. Somebody had better tell Dumbo he never really needed the feather before he crashes and burns, rendering the Eastern Conference playoffs irrelevant in the crash.

The Key To Houston’s First Round

Make no mistake about it, making the playoffs is not nearly enough for the Houston Rockets this season. James Harden was the impetus for Houston’s return to postseason play least season, but the addition of Dwight Howard in free agency has fans and players alike thinking nothing short of contention.

It might be a stretch to call the Rockets contenders, but there is a clear road map for them to get out of the first round. That map leads right through the middle of the paint, where #12 waits to dominate a Portland Trail Blazers team that is simply not equipped to handle Dwight Howard down low.

“I thought we had two good days of practice,” Howard said on Saturday morning. “We came in and worked hard. We got our game plan down so we’re ready for tomorrow. This is what we’ve been waiting on all year. All year we’ve been prepping, getting ready for the playoffs.”

It’s good that Howard feels that way, because he will absolutely be the key to Houston’s offensive attack.

Howard’s first big game of the season came against the Blazers. He scored 29 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, even hit 9-fo-12 from the free throw line in a 15-point Houston win. Just over a month later, Howard got his second crack at the Blazers, and Portland had even more trouble containing him. Howard dropped in 32 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and blocked three shots in a seven-point loss at the Rose Garden. Howard rounded out the season series with a 24 and 12 night back in Houston in January, giving the Rockets a 13-point victory and a 2-1 win in the season series.

“We’ve been preparing as a staff for Portland for 10 days and actually just really grinding it out for the last five or six days,” head coach Kevin McHale said on Saturday. “Today was a really good day. Looking forward to play tomorrow.”

It should be fairly simple. Houston’s All-Star center should have a steady stream of touches in the post, where he should be able to give Houston more than enough of an advantage to get out of the first round relatively unscathed.

Bill Ingram is a Senior NBA Analyst for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA since 1998.

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