If I was given a dollar for every time the number one seed was mentioned through March and April, my paycheck may be as large as Lance Stephenson’s this summer.
The Indiana Pacers worked for one thing this season, and that’s home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Forget the NBA Finals, forget the first two rounds against Atlanta and Washington. They knew the one seed in the Western Conference would accumulate anywhere from 60-65 wins, and their end-of-season collapse cut their win total short at 56-26.
Getting back to the Eastern Conference Finals with Games 1, 2, 5, and 7 on their home floor — knowing deep down inside Miami would be waiting — was the central goal.
For the Pacers, they hoped the worst case scenario featured them losing the three games in South Beach, while using the home crowd for four wins in Indianapolis. That was the plan, and Game 7 in front of the gold out crowd would’ve been incredibly tough for any road team to steal.
It can still happen, but it’ll take a huge feat that Indiana may not be capable of. Winning at least one game in Miami, either Saturday or Monday, is mandatory.
Out of all the criticism Paul George and the Pacers have taken since March, what’s been atop the list of concerns?
“This team doesn’t have the mental stability to get it done.”
Flash back to a couple days following Frank Vogel’s decision to rest the starters on the road in Milwaukee (April 9). That was Stan Van Gundy’s reaction, as he felt the starters would have suffered a mental breakdown if they walked into Milwaukee and lost to a pitiful roster.
Now, winning on the road with the season on the line will test their preparation, toughness, and will to win their first NBA title.
In the 2013 Conference Finals, Indiana was able to win the second game in American Airlines Arena, after a blown defensive assignment in Game 1 allowed LeBron James to get an uncontested game-winning layup. The Pacers’ chances at taking a 2-0 series lead last year was within grasp. They let it slip, and it ultimately cost them the series.
New year, same result?
Game 2 was in the Pacers’ arms on Tuesday night, until James and Dwyane Wade turned into demons and haunted their dreams. The title-defending duo combined to score Miami’s final 20 points in the fourth quarter, shutting down what was a one-point lead for Indiana after the third.
It may not be 2006 Wade, but it’s the best we’ve seen him since the knee began deteriorating. Trainer Tim Grover, who had success with the two best shooting guards ever (Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant), has guided Wade along this journey. The plan, at the end of the day, was to train for two series, likely 14 games. The notion was that it would only take James and minor role player contributions for the Heat to advance to the East Finals. While Wade stepped up against Charlotte (17.5 points per game, 49.1 percent shooting) and then in a five-game battle with Brooklyn (18.2 points, 50.7 percent shooting), it proved to be true.
On his own, James could ransack the entire Eastern Conference outside of Indiana. It’s the conference that heavily depends on the NBA Draft refueling them with talent, because the disparity compared to the West has become inconceivable. In the words of Indianapolis’ own Jay Graves, stop me when I start lyin’.
Wade has taken all the criticism in the past six months — missing 28 regular season games — with a grain of salt. It doesn’t affect him, because he knew his team didn’t need his superstar elevation until it truly mattered. If this was the case out in the West, Miami would’ve found themselves hovering around the fifth or sixth seed if they couldn’t rely on Wade being there in the regular season grind.
It doesn’t help the Pacers for Wade to be playing like a three-time champion whose talent has been disrespected all season long. It also doesn’t help them to know Erik Spoelstra is comfortable throwing Norris Cole on Stephenson to get him rattled and prevent dribble penetration.
Can you fathom how much the confidence factor will shrink for Indiana if they return home on Wednesday trailing 3-1? Winning two straight games against Miami in the playoffs is already like trying to keep the Cavaliers from winning the draft lottery, so stealing three consecutive to close out the series will be out of the question.
People put a ton of emphasis on Game 7 of this series, before it’s even guaranteed to be played. Games 1 and 2 were the most important of the series, and Miami did all they had to do.
The nauseating part of it all?
If Indiana isn’t able to redeem themselves for one win in Game 3 or 4, it will be said that the Pacers had more of chance to dethrone the Heat last season, when they weren’t fully developed and just shocked the league with their improvements. As the underdogs by a wide margin, the Pacers may have fared better. Now, as their footsteps inched closer and closer, maybe even parallel with Miami, we may be in store for a quick, statement-setting performance to cap off a 3-peat.
However this turns out, two storylines certainly have shined brighter than others in these Conference Finals.
One, the Western Conference champion should be heavily favored heading into the NBA’s grandest stage, and nobody expects the Spurs to choke, up 2-0 on OKC, as they did in 2012.
Two, the result of the Eastern Conference Finals may be the match that lights the loser on fire, and starts a roster shakeup for either Indiana or Miami.