INDIANAPOLIS – On the eve of this Eastern Conference series, the wobbling No. 1 seed punctuated its final playoff preparations in a most self-destructive way: Two Indiana Pacers dragged a cursing, cut Evan Turner out of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court, untangling him from a practice-floor fistfight with teammate Lance Stephenson.
Turner hadn't been the first Pacer to lose his temper with Stephenson these tumultuous several weeks, and Stephenson's relentlessly irritable nature suggests Turner won't be the last. These scrapes aren't uncommon in the NBA, but this confrontation had been weeks in the making and that reflected in the ferocity of the encounter, sources told Yahoo Sports.
"This stuff happens, but the timing wasn't ideal," one witness told Yahoo Sports.
If acrimony naturally lingered into Saturday, make no mistake: Stephenson and Turner weren't the reason the Atlanta Hawks embarrassed the Pacers in Game 1. Maybe it tilted the mood of locker room, but no one dared suggest that it held responsibility for deadening the Pacers into defeat.
These two guards have struggled together since the deadline deal brought Turner from Philadelphia to Indiana. Suddenly, Turner is learning to play without the ball in his hands, and Stephenson is relearning the balance of passing and shooting. Truth be told, there were probably Pacers willing to let Stephenson and Turner beat the dribble out of each other. Still, Luis Scola and David West finally grabbed an enraged Turner and separated Stephenson.
If the scrape had been symptomatic of greater tensions within the Pacers, it's also clear this has been a full team collapse and will need to be a full team recovery.
"We've been on the ropes a little bit," West told Yahoo Sports Tuesday night. "Every team goes through that. But I thought we did a great job of dealing with whatever issues we had. The great thing about this group has always been that we're very open with one another, always been able to get through the ups and downs of a long NBA season."
Yes, they did it with fists on Friday, but mostly they've found a way to talk through the frustrations of a flat-lined final several weeks of the season.
These Pacers have been a combustible mix of talent and expectations and immaturity. Still, Indiana finally found footing with a 101-85 Game 2 victory over Atlanta on Tuesday night at Bankers Life. Paul George was fantastic and Roy Hibbert struggled again. Indiana can live without Hibbert in this series, but he'll need to be himself again to make a championship run. The Pacers need to go smaller with the Hawks, but that wouldn't be the case in the conference semifinals and conference finals.
"We know that Larry [Bird] and Donnie [Walsh] and [Kevin Pritchard] put a team together to try and win a championship this year," Hibbert told Yahoo Sports. "We know that's the goal, and we know that's the kind of talent we have here. It's up to us now to do it, to get it done."
These aren't the Pacers of the relentlessly patient Donnie Walsh anymore, and rest assured: Bird won't let a collapse go unaccounted. Frank Vogel's coaching job is on the line, and perhaps Hibbert's future with the Pacers, too. This is Indiana's championship time, and the stakes are immense.
Bird made two significant deals to fortify this title run – Turner for Danny Granger, and the signing of Andrew Bynum – and those haven't worked for him. Bynum could be done for the season with his knee problems, and perhaps everyone underestimated how much Granger had left in him, and how awkwardly Turner would fit into the Pacers.
The Pacers let go of a free agent-to-be they wouldn't have re-signed for a young, former No. 2 overall pick whom they hoped they could re-sign to a long-term deal.
"I'm just trying to make the right plays here," Turner told Yahoo Sports. "Some nights I get two shots, some nights I get 10 or 12. I'm trying to get acclimated."
Turner had one shot and just 11 minutes in Game 2, but the Pacers won and that lifted a burden off everyone in the locker room. Turner insisted "nothing happened" with Stephenson in practice on Friday, but he's in a tough spot to cop to the truth. He doesn't want to be a disruption, but rather a solution. Turner's trying to fit into these Pacers, trying to prove he belongs on the court for a championship contender.
Yes, Turner's finding his way with these Pacers, and maybe that started on the eve of these NBA playoffs with a challenge of the Brooklyn kid who calls himself Born Ready. These things happen in the NBA, and eventually someone else will make a run at Lance Stephenson. For now, the Pacers understand: The rest of the way, they need to take some swings within these Eastern Conference playoffs. This is the Indiana Pacers' moment of truth, a championship-caliber roster that's out of time to flail punches into the Bankers Life Fieldhouse air.
It is time to play ball, time to grow up and, maybe most of all, time to honor the promise of a season that is too rich in possibility to lose fighting themselves.