The upstart Indiana team has taken the Heat to Game 7.
The Miami Heat and LeBron James are on the brink. Tonight in their home arena they face the kind of tests that great teams must pass. For them, it is Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, a game to be played against an Indiana Pacers team that no one expected to be here.
But to paraphrase what center Roy Hibbert said after the Pacers won Game 6, no one bothered to watch the Pacers during the season, so how could anyone really know how good they were?
That’s what is intriguing about their win-or-go-home game in Miami. For NBA fans who have spent the 2012-13 season obsessed with LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, for NBA fans who thought for sure Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks would be the team for the Heat to beat, they’ve missed the emergence of a “team.”
The Pacers aren’t built around one star. Nor are they a team built with parts like Miami was, with players coaxed into coming there because South Beach was a sexier place to live than Cleveland or Toronto. Instead, the Pacers were cobbled together through the draft: a wise pick here; another wise pick there.
They are young; they are energetic; and they are too naïve — a good thing here — to know that they aren’t supposed to be pushing the NBA’s defending champions and the game’s best player to the limit in a conference final.
Being in this position, however, might be more than the youthful Pacers can handle. They have never played in a pressure cooker of a game like this one. They have never, ever faced a challenge as daunting as this one — at least not since Reggie Miller rained long jumpers on the Knicks during a series of playoff games in the 1990s.
Reeeeeeh Geeeeeeeee was a bona fide NBA star, but the Pacers have no one like him, not a single player who can grab the big moment and carry it to the finish line. Yet maybe they don’t need that one player; maybe they have what no other team in the NBA has: a collection of talent that works well together.
It would be unwise to bet your mortgage on the Pacers to win. They are on the road at American Airlines Arena; they are facing a team with three stars to their none; they are in a place where this collection of Pacers has never been and playing for a coach — Frank Vogel — nobody has ever heard of.
If a deck is ever stacked against a team, the Pacers are that team. They have no reason to win. They have no one who can stop LeBron or match his game if he decides to play like the best player on the planet.
Yet that seems not to worry the Pacers. To a man, they sound unflappable, ready for the firestorm that will surely come their way on the court. They will have to expect Wade and Bosh to play better; they will have to expect LeBron to produce a big game. Yet they will also have to expect that they will play the way they have all series: calmly and smartly.
The parts might not look flashy, but the whole of the Pacers is a team to be reckoned with, as LeBron and the Heat now know well. The whole of the Pacers is poised to turn the NBA playoffs topsy-turvy. For who saw an NBA Final of the Pacers vs. the San Antonio Spurs?
That, too, isn’t a flashy combination. Maybe that’s what the NBA needed in its Finals: a low-key showdown between two teams that were built from scratch, instead of with three stars who conspired to build a dynasty when none of three could go it alone.
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