It's open season on the Pacers. They are a snap, crackle and popping dumpster fire. Their identity is lost. Their Hall of Fame president in the stands Thursday night in Atlanta, Larry Bird, looked as though he'd rather be playing H-O-R-S-E in his driveway in French Lick. Their coach, Frank Vogel, is clinging to his job, while the general manager, Kevin Pritchard, tweets that, hey, everything is cool over here.
And yet the Pacers, who stumbled backwards into the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, are in better shape than some in these unpredictable 2014 playoffs and, at this writing, no worse shape than others. As I contemplated how far the Pacers have fallen on Thursday night after a 98-85 loss that dropped them into a 2-1 hole against the eighth-seeded Hawks, lo and behold: The Thunder fell just as far with a 98-95 loss in Memphis that put them in the same 2-1 deficit in that series. The Clippers held on against the Warriors in Game 3 to avoid a similar fate.
On Saturday in Dallas, the Spurs -- the infallible, top-seeded Spurs -- will find themselves in the same predicament as the Pacers if they're unable to put together all the necessary ingredients for a road victory against the pesky Mavs. No easy task, by the way.
The Bulls, meanwhile, would give Joakim Noah's hair bun to be down 2-1 in their first-round series against the Wizards. Same with the Rockets and James Harden's beard.
Welcome to the 2014 NBA playoffs, where anything goes.
The Pacers' woes are magnified for several reasons. After falling short against Miami two years in a row in the postseason, this was supposed to be their year. They steamrolled through the first four months of the season before stumbling to only 10 wins in their final 23 games. Since trading the revered Danny Granger for Evan Turner in February -- a transaction that yours truly thought would be beneficial -- the Pacers have been psychologically fragile, to say the least.
The only implosion of similar magnitude I can think of was the 2003-04 Lakers of Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton. Those Lakers won 56 games in the regular season, just as these Pacers did, and went down fighting -- with each other -- with a 4-1 loss to the Detroit Pistons in the Finals.
Then again, at least those bickering Lakers made it to the Finals. For the Pacers, it's a monumental challenge just to get out of the first round.
But that's just the way it is this year in the NBA playoffs. Road teams reign supreme, and the 1-8 matchup isn't must-change-the-channel-TV anymore. Why that is might make an interesting discussion for another day, but for now, the point is that the Pacers aren't finished. They're one revised, well-executed game plan away from going home with a chance to go up 3-2 in the series.
Given how focused everyone is on the Pacers' flaws -- and there are a lot of them, along with some underestimated strengths belonging to the Atlanta Hawks -- that seems like a ridiculously optimistic interpretation of this series' events to this point. But it's all true.
Even on Thursday night, when Roy Hibbert played only 19 minutes (none in the fourth quarter) and the Pacers were largely a lost cause again, they were one shoeprint on the sideline away from possibly being up 2-1 heading into Game 3 on Saturday.
With 2:49 left, Jeff Teague launched a wild, off-balance 3-pointer that went in, giving Atlanta an 87-78 lead. At the next play stoppage, it was 87-80 when the officials went to the video replay review to determine if Teague was behind the 3-point line.
He was. The only problem was, the replay showed he'd also stepped out of bounds -- an aspect of the play that, under the NBA's well-intentioned but overly complicated replay rules, was not reviewable outside of the two-minute mark on the game clock.
Had the 3-pointer been taken off the scoreboard, as it should have been in a perfect world, the Pacers would've been down 84-80 with 2:10 left and Teague at the line shooting free throws. But the knowledge that the Hawks had gotten three points they didn't deserve proved to be more than these fragile Pacers could handle.
This is how close these playoff games are, how little difference there is between the teams -- whether they won 56 games in the regular season or 38.
As vulnerable and lost as the Pacers look, can anyone envision them turning it around and making it out of his series? If you can't, you haven't been paying attention. Anything goes in this NBA postseason, and what happened in the previous game or possession means nothing.
Even for a mess like the Pacers.