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Remember when basketball meant just basketball, before the drama that is the Indiana Pacers hit the national scene to add intrigue for almost every occasion?
Suddenly the Pacers are making news for all sorts of reasons, such as star forward Paul George being hit with a paternity petition by a former stripper that he fathered her 4-week-old daughter, or that team president Larry Bird was not happy about Lance Stephenson's ear-blowing moment with LeBron James, or Stephenson interrupting a Miami Heat huddle or the fact Stephenson and center Roy Hibbert were fined by the NBA for flopping during Indiana's Game 5 win over Miami.
Then there was the complaints about officiating after the Game 4 loss -- George was fined $25,000 for his “home-cooking” comments -- that left many questioning the team's maturity and awareness.
Meanwhile, there's a huge Game 6 set for tonight in Miami that, one way or the other, could define the Pacers for the next half decade. Win and it's back to Indianapolis on Sunday for a winner-take-all Game 7 ratings bonanza. Lose and momentum will push for change -- perhaps as simple as finding a true point guard, or maybe as dramatic as blowing up the team and starting over.
But, really, why worry about basketball when there is so much more to consider?
Ex-stripper Daniela Rajic has charged that George is the father of her daughter, Olivia. A paternity test will determine the truth. George said he will do the right thing.
Is that a distraction? It could be, although George lit up the Heat for 37 points Wednesday night with this looming, so maybe it makes him more focused.
As for Stephenson, well, he remains a controversial mix of promise and problem. He can take over a game or make a mess of it, sometimes in the same quarter. And his ear-blowing antics produced an endless series of altered Twitter photos and are-you-kidding comments.
As for Stephenson listening in while Miami coach Eric Spoelstra talked to Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole during a Game 5 timeout and, well ...
“It's Lance being Lance,” George said. “Lance is special, and there's a reason why we gain an edge during games. A lot of it comes from Lance. So we need that. He's always got to make sure he's monitoring it.”
On Thursday, Stephenson was hit for his second flopping fine of the playoffs and third of the season. No other player has ever been fined for flopping so often for so much ($10,000 this time). Add his 17 technical fouls this season, three in the playoffs, and you have $65,000 in total fines.
Hibbert, whose up-and-down play leaves confusion in his wake, was fined $5,000.
Stephenson is a free agent after this season. Is he worth trying to keep?
Meanwhile, Indiana must find a way to contain James, who is certain to come out blazing after a career-low seven points Wednesday due to foul trouble. George figures to once again bear the biggest defensive burden, a factor in his erratic offense this series.
“It's tough night in and night out to guard the best player in this league,” George said. “It wears on you. You're going to be inconsistent shooting.”
Down 3-2 in this best-of-seven series, the Pacers can't afford any inconsistency given Miami is unbeaten at home in the playoffs. They need offensive balance, defensive intensity, and a refusal to give in to adversity.
Oh, yes. Limit turnovers.
“With our backs to the wall, we've proved that we can come out on top,” George said. “But this is different. We're playing against the champions.
“It's going to be tough. We're not expecting any of this to be easy. We've got to do one possession at a time. We can't turn the ball over. This is going to be about performing like champions.”
And then embracing the drama sure to follow.