Monday, May 12, 2014

The 2014 Indiana Pacers: Victims of our fickle culture

“Shut up.”

That was Mike Wilbon’s advice to the Indiana Pacers before Game 2 of its series with the Washington Wizards.

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“No one cared if Shaq and Kobe were friends. They cared if they won or not.”

It was in that moment that Wilbon revealed himself as a relic, a sportswriter firmly stuck in the past. Because 2000 may as well have been 50 years ago.

First off, could you even imagine how the Shaq/Kobe Lakers would have been covered in 2014? Both Shaq and Kobe have had social media mistakes; how many barbs would they throw at each other? How many controversies would they have started? These two carried out a very public feud without the assistance of social media.

Beyond that, how NBA teams are covered in 2014 is so much different that it’s laughable to even compare the two. Twitter has changed the world and what is considered media. In 2000, it was still largely the traditional media. The influence of bloggers and the 24-hour news cycle for sports means that the Pacers don’t hear just about on-court performance, like Shaq and Kobe did, it’s all personal questions.

What’s wrong with the Pacers? Why don’t they get along? What is going on behind the scenes? Who is feuding with who?

So the Pacers needed to squash everything. That is why, contrary to Wilbon’s advice, they needed to publicly state that nothing was wrong. They needed to show a happy face publicly if only to move past these issues.

As I write this, the Pacers are a game away from finishing of the Wizards and moving on to the Eastern Conference Finals against LeBron and the Heat – the series we have been waiting for and talking about since last year. It’s almost here.

What’s wrong with the Pacers? Maybe the question should be, is anything wrong with the Pacers?

The NBA has been littered in recent years with first-round upsets and 8 seeds taking down 1 seeds. Instead of giving the Pacers credit for fighting off a Hawks team that was clearly playing inspired basketball and punching above its weight class, the focus zoned in on Frank Vogel’s job security, endless rumors and talking heads trolling.

There is so much space to fill in a 24-hour news cycle with fans constantly looking to consume anything that small stories become big stories and talking points become truths. Look at how our national news discussion has been destroyed by MSNBC and Fox News hammering home ideological views for days upon days, which leads to an idiot like Ted Cruz needlessly shutting down our government.

Thankfully, in the world of sports, the idiots can’t force the United States of America to close up shop. The idiots can only prod, annoy and speculate.

The real story about the Indiana Pacers is that the parity of our professional leagues and the playoff format means that the goal of the regular season for good teams is to play your best basketball when it matters.

The Pacers, still young and learning, played their best ball three months too early.

Look at LeBron and the Heat, who essentially treated the 2013-14 regular season as the world’s longest preseason. While they said the right things, and home court would have been nice against the Pacers, it ultimately didn’t matter as much as keeping Wade healthy, preventing serious injuries and finding the right rotation.

LeBron, probably more than any athlete, understands how today’s culture treats its superstars. Remember it was just two years ago that the “Good Job, Good Effort” kid yelled at LeBron as he walked off the court in a loss to the Celtics and we were treated to two full days of debate about whether LeBron would ever win a title.

Fast forward to today, and the discussion is now focused on whether LeBron will ever not win a title.

We are a fickle sports culture. Even worse, we are an impatient sports culture.

This mentality works in football because there is one game and it’s over. We can instantly analyze or make judgments about playoff games because we’ve seen the whole series in three hours. A basketball series takes two weeks. A basketball playoff last two months. It’s a whole season.

We wouldn’t – well, shouldn’t – make rash judgments about the NBA season in November, but we have no problem doing so after Game 1 of playoff series.

I’m not going to say the Pacers are having a good postseason – but they certainly are not having a bad one, are they? At the very worst, barring a truly hideous collapse against the Wizards, they will end up exactly where they were a year ago.

This was the expectation, right? That they would play the Heat for the right to go after a title in the NBA Finals. The journey may have gone off script but the destination is still correct.

But waiting to see how things turn out doesn’t generate web traffic, or get you a talking head spot on PTI or a 10-minute hit on ESPN radio. You have to be bold and loud and obnoxious.

I guess I’ll do that now – the Pacers are going to beat the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Final. 

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