Expectations can be a frightening thing.
Over the previous two seasons, the Indiana Pacers became a really good team that challenged the defending NBA champs in the Eastern Conference finals. They grew with their series loss in six games to the team in 2012. They used that growth to make it through to the third round of the playoffs in 2013 and took it to a Game 7. From then on out, they wanted to be a contender and have the luxury of a Game 7 against that same opponent but on their own home floor.
When the season started, it's all they talked about. It was their focus and their goal. They were going to be the best team in the regular season and it was going to benefit them when the playoffs came around. But as the playoffs approached, the Pacers were getting closer and closer to having to prove they could come through on their word of showing they were title contenders. All of a sudden, things started falling apart for them.
If you want to know what happened during the two months heading up to the playoffs, just make sure to re-watch Game 1 of their series against the 37-45 Atlanta Hawks who happen to be missing their best player. Everything was on display there. Every miscue was followed by shoulders dropping, frowns forming, and exasperated stares coming out of their eyes. Any semblance of chemistry was a distance wish and the fear of not living up to expectations seemed to be saturating every moment they had on the court.
At a certain point with living up to expectations, you come to the realization that if you don't come through on your end of the deal then you're a failure. Some people or teams thrive off that fear of failure. Others freeze and start pointing the fingers at someone else who can carry the blame away from themselves. Over the past two months, the Pacers have been pointing away and freezing in the face of failure.
That's not the recipe for success in this league. Even when a team is supposedly overmatched by your talent and existence, you can't freeze against them. George Hill and Evan Turner froze when it was Jeff Teague breaking them down. Roy Hibbert froze on the uncomfortable perimeter, as he had to respect Pero Antic's 3-point shooting, rather than staying in the shallow end of the half court where he could protect the paint. Lance Stephenson seemed to panic and try to make up for multiple bad plays all in one home run play, which ended up just being another bad play when he couldn't come through.
Instead of accepting the task at hand, the Pacers seemed to sweat the details and worry about the expectations. In previous seasons, nobody expected them to be the best. After talking about how it was the only option for them, they certainly can't pretend to be worthy of their own aspirations. At a certain point, you have to just do what you said you were going to do and stop worrying about the how, why, or ramifications of it all.
The Pacers can continue to snipe at each other or they can get all of their problems out in the air, accept them, get over them like adults are supposed to do, and come together as a team. It's a simple task that takes setting pride aside and being able to figure out what your own self is doing wrong. They've aired out grievances, but none of the other following tasks have been met, much like the tasks they've set out for themselves following that Eastern Conference finals appearance.
There are no more moral victories in the lives of the Indiana Pacers, unless they continue to sink past the point of fans or media types hedging for a possible resurgence. The Pacers have to put the fear of it all aside and remember what got them there in the first place. When they play basketball the way we saw in the first three months, they look like they're capable of anything. When they play the way the Hawks made the play in Game 1, they look fraudulent.
You can fear your own expectations or you can fear the fallout of not meeting them. But you have to thrive on that fear. Lucky for the Pacers, most people aren't expecting them to do much any more. You guys can relax now.