Basketball

Miami blocks Pacers championship path again

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana Pacers' bizarre season came to a familiar end Friday night. Another embarrassing loss at Miami.

Now Larry Bird must spend the offseason trying to figure out what went wrong and what must be fixed to finally beat the Heat in the playoffs. "You just have to go into the offseason with the mindset that we're going to reload. We have a core, a system, a culture that's going to give us a chance every year," coach Frank Vogel said after Friday's 25-point, season-ending loss. "We've got to make whatever adjustments we have to make to come back and be here again next year."

There are plenty of questions heading into what could be a turbulent offseason. Will Vogel be back after leading the Pacers to 42, 49 and 56 wins in his first three full seasons as coach, capturing back-to-back Central Division titles, reaching the last two conference finals and earning the No. 1 seed for only the third time in franchise history?

Will the Pacers re-sign free agent Lance Stephenson, their 23-year-old energizer, whose erratic behavior became a major distraction in the Eastern Conference finals? Could Hibbert be on the trading block after struggling through Indiana's confounding second-half swoon and nearly disappearing, at times, during the playoffs?

Might Bird make other moves to cope with the NBA trend of spreading the floor, add scorers or rebuild the bench yet again? Or do the Pacers simply need more time to mature? While those answers might not come for months, one thing is clear: They must find a way to get past Miami after three straight playoff series losses, the last two in the Eastern Conference finals.

"Obviously, they're more prepared, they're more seasoned for this moment," David West said. "They've been able to embrace these moments to get to a level that we, for some reason, can't compete." Bird spent last summer revamping the bench, and Indiana responded with a 33-7 start — the best in the NBA.

But after signing Andrew Bynum in February and trading Danny Granger for Evan Turner at the trade deadline, the Pacers went into a confounding second-half swoon in which they looked disengaged and disinterested. Two-time All-Star Paul George acknowledged Friday that the Pacers seemed to hit a wall, thinking they could turn it on whenever they needed it.

Somehow, they still managed to finish with the best record in the East, rallied to win the final two games against eighth-seeded Atlanta after twice giving away home-court advantage and rallied again against a young Washington team after giving away home-court advantage in Game 1.

When they did it again by failing to close out the Heat at home in Game 2, Miami responded by winning all three of its home games decisively to clinch the series. "You know at times it feels like we're there, and then there's games where it still feels like we're not at that point yet," George said when asked if he thought the Pacers had closed the gap on Miami. "Coach says it, I mean, in order for us to beat this team, we've got to play like champions. More times than not, we didn't do so."

Most of the problems were self-inflicted. Indiana struggled with infighting, prolonged slumps, unseemly rumors and constant criticism. Hibbert epitomized much of it. In late March, he complained about "selfish dudes" in the locker room, a barb directed at Stephenson, later apologized and was so bad, at times, in the playoffs that fans and analysts called for his benching.

And it's unclear what the Pacers will do after a second straight blowout in an elimination game at Miami. Bird acknowledged the Pacers were going "all in" this season when they re-signed David West, gave George a max deal and traded away their first-round pick to get Luis Scola from Phoenix.

Stephenson could be the next Pacers player to strike it rich. But after calling out LeBron James publicly before Game 4, blowing in his ear in Game 5 and tapping James on his chin early in Game 6, some wonder if the Pacers even want Stephenson back.

It all depends on whether Bird thinks Stephenson can help beat the Heat. "I don't know what the future holds for us," West said. "Obviously, everything starts and ends with the Miami Heat. You have to have a team that can get through a tough regular season but ultimately, you have to be able to beat Miami to get to the finals."

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