The Indiana Pacers are climbing the Mount Everest of the NBA.
The first several thousand feet in Game 1 were easy, but as soon as the ascent became more challenging, the surrounding atmosphere unleashed the indiscriminating fury of Mother Nature.
Some winds picked up and blew right in the faces of the Pacers, blurring David West’s vision on the jump shots he made so routinely in Game 1.
A rockslide occurred. Two small rocks hit Paul George in the head, blurring his vision and affecting an important member of the climbing party.
Temperatures dropped, as Lance Stephenson was cooled off considerably by Norris Cole, who somehow managed to play a high-level game after giving Miami nothing against Brooklyn and in Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals against Indiana.
Last night, in Game 2, the surrounding conditions deteriorated and became a lot more nasty than they had been.
This is what it’s like when a team in Indiana’s position tries to dethrone a team in Miami’s spot. This is why the coming three-day break in the Eastern Conference Finals is the calm before the storm, the final prelude to the middle and concluding acts of a supreme sports drama that will be captivating one way or another.
Indiana’s climbing party will either scale the massive mountain and exult in complete triumph, or the Pacers will suffer defeat of the greatest magnitude, beaten by the Heat and the cold in equal measure. Sickened, shaken and devastated to the core, the team has they have known it could die. At the very least, members of the climbing party will be abandoned and/or discarded in the survivalist world of professional sports.
This is why we watch. This is why we care.
This is the drama of sport, writ large. The Western Conference Finals — with Durant and Westbrook and the Spurs’ symphony of movement and Kawhi Leonard leaving more lingerie on the deck than Bill Raftery could ever imagine — can have their more aesthetically pleasing brand of ball. The East Finals are all about the Pacers’ bold and risky attempt to climb Mount Miami, the tallest and most jagged piece of rock in the NBA.
This is not a new drama in the history of American professional basketball — you know this.
The Philadelphia 76ers, with Julius Erving on their roster, needed three tries to finally solve the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1983 NBA Finals.
The Detroit Pistons lost to the Boston Celtics in 1987 before getting it right in 1988. The Pistons lost to the Lakers in the ’88 Finals before starting again at the base of the mountain and putting together a successful climb in 1989.
The Chicago Bulls were given a lesson at So Close Yet So Far University in 1989 and 1990, when they came within small margins of toppling the Pistons, but the more experienced mountain climbers from the Motor City turned them back. The Bulls’ emotions were shattered after the 1990 loss. The degree of emotional pain they suffered — much like the pain of a failed conquest to climb a massive summit just when things had looked so promising a few days before — could not have been overstated. Yet, in 1991, the Bulls gathered themselves. They looked inward. They took stock of their situation. They breathed deeply and absorbed every last ounce of wisdom the Pistons had brought before them.
They won six of the next eight NBA Finals.
In 2011, Dirk Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks, five very long years after seeing a 2-0 series lead and a fat Game 3 advantage slip away against the Miami Heat in the Finals, was just about to give up his climb toward an always-elusive championship… and not just once, but twice.
Down 15 with roughly seven minutes left in Game 2, trailing 1-0 in the series.
Down 9 a few minutes into the fourth quarter of Game 4, trailing 2-1 in the series.
The more Dallas climbed, the worse the weather became. Like any world-class mountain climber, the Mavericks had to access levels of toughness and resourcefulness they had never known. Nowitzki had to use the heartbreak of the 2006 NBA Finals as a teacher, not as a reason to quit.
This is the glory of the NBA, the reason this sport — for all its flaws — shines in late May and early June.
Professional basketball — though lacking the raw physical rigor of Stanley Cup playoff hockey — most resembles mountain climbing, because it is the sport that most frequently forces teams to figure out a familiar nemesis to get to the championship summit.
The 82-game regular season is so unnecessarily long. If it could be trimmed to 60 games, and if other improvements were made to the on-court product (fewer timeouts, FIBA basket-interference rules, and other refinements), you’d probably see more national interest in the NBA. Yet, while the season is far too extensive, it certainly turns pro basketball into an endurance test, and when the conference finals roll around, the sport regularly gives American viewers familiar matchups — in clusters of three or four seasons if not over a full decade’s worth of time.
Seeing players reach deep inside themselves at a late stage of a long, grueling odyssey, all against a familiar foe, is one of the finest dramas in sports. It’s exactly what the Indiana Pacers are immersed in right now.
Moreover, the things that happened to the Pacers late in Game 2 — with George’s blurry vision following Dwyane Wade’s inadvertent double-blow to his head; West’s compromised vision following an eye poke; and Stephenson’s inability to carry his team to the finish line in the fourth quarter — fit perfectly into the mountain climbing mold. When you climb higher and the reality of success seems ever nearer, bad weather can and does emerge. The Pacers now know that this is not likely to be a five-game climb that will be tucked neatly to bed. It’s a series almost certain to go six, and very likely to last the full seven games.
The Heat are the two-time defending champions, and they were good enough on defense to win Game 2, but this series — its central drama and ultimate outcome — is fundamentally a story of how the Pacers, denied by Miami each of the past two postseasons, respond to the moment. Yes, it’s true that the Heat will have a lot to say about how this series unfolds; they’re not somehow irrelevant or peripheral in the bigger scheme of things. Yet, the Pacers are the central dramatis personae. They are the people being closely watched. They are the ones who have to prove something to themselves and the nation, not the ring-wearing elites in South Florida.
Let’s now ask the question: In strict basketball terms — not intangibles, but on-court production and quality — what will it take for Indiana to climb Mount Miami?
On a broader level, it’s worth spending these next few off days revisiting the style-of-play debate attached to this series.
Ethan J. Skolnick of Bleacher Report has covered the Heat as closely and as diligently as anyone in the United States over the past few years. He has talked directly to coaches and players. He has put his press-row seat to good use in the Big Three era, ably chronicling the Heat during their years of newfound prominence after the post-2006 lull that had once again made the franchise an afterthought in the NBA. When he tweeted this last night, he wasn’t wrong, because he was speaking to something that the teams and coaching staffs have expressed. This wasn’t his own narrow opinion so much as it was his studied assessment of what the principals in the competition believe to be important.
Yet, for all the ways in which Skolnick is objectively right — there’s no question Miami would like to get out and run more, while Indiana must keep the game at a slower pace — a new line of thought needs to be injected into this series during this extended pre-weekend break.
In 2012 and probably in 2013 as well, Miami much more clearly needed to play “pretty basketball” to win. The Heat’s skill level was more pronounced. Indiana was learning how to compete and comport itself like a championship-caliber team. The rapid emergence of Roy Hibbert as a next-level rim protector meant that Miami had to hit perimeter shots. A longtime Miami fixture, Udonis Haslem, contributed to this effort in both 2012 (Game 4) and 2013 (Game 5) against Indiana. A new member of the Heat, Ray Allen, chipped in during the 2013 East Finals. Games 5 through 7 of last year’s protracted war between these two teams reinforced the notion that when Miami gained an appreciable measure of flow at the offensive end, the series swung in the Heat’s direction.
A year later, then, it still is perfectly reasonable to say that Miami needs the pretty series to win, while Indiana — so comfortable in playing games in the mid-80s — wants an ugly series. Again, the writers who cover these teams closely are not manufacturing a narrative, especially because the pace-of-play equation remains unchanged from the past two seasons.
However, it’s time to introduce a counterintuitive thought: Might it actually be the case that Indiana, unlike its past two postseason go-rounds with Miami, needs an elegant series more than the Heat?
Look at the first two games and try to counter that assertion.
Game 1 was a symphony of — dare one say it? — Spurs-like ball movement and spacing from the Pacers, who knocked down their open jump shots and played their most complete team game in a matter of months, not just weeks. In Game 2, Paul George couldn’t hit the side of a barn for most of the evening, and just when he was beginning to cook in the fourth quarter, his head met Wade’s knee, and the buckets didn’t continue for Indiana. West, poked in the eye, lost the touch on his mid-range jumper. Stephenson was blanketed by Norris Cole, who gave Miami a massive contribution for the first time in the past few weeks.
The point is plain: So far in this series, when the game has flowed, Indiana has carried the play. When things have been mucked up and messy, Miami has taken advantage of the situation. Indiana scored only 14 points in the first 10 minutes of the fourth quarter in Game 2. By that point in time, Miami had forged an 84-77 lead and was well on its way to a road split in Indianapolis. Call this a small and therefore unconvincing sample size — fair enough.
Nevertheless, as these teams enter the middle section of this series — the third clash between them in as many seasons dating back to 2012 — they are less mysterious to each other. Because Indiana is a more known entity to the Heat, the Pacers might no longer be able to get away with making the game ugly. Such a focus served them well last year, but Miami managed to find fluidity on its home floor at the tail-end of the 2013 East Finals.
Now, with Miami’s bench being less threatening than ever before and Chris Bosh immersed in a shooting slump (notice how said slump didn’t matter in Game 2; conventional wisdom would have said that it should have made a difference for Indiana), the tipping point of Pacers-Heat — the thing that can enable Indiana to climb the mountain successfully — is to play elegant, beautiful games, at least in the fourth quarter. Miami has a place in this conversation, but if the challenger is to finally fell the champ, it needs to land punches in the latter rounds, and these punches are not blows with fists, but with goose-neck follow throughs that make orange spheres tickle twine.
Climbing a mountain and shooting a basketball both require an unconquerable sense of confidence that must be consistently, even relentlessly, cultivated. Many repetitions over a long period of time go into the creation of such confidence.
Indiana will luckily have three days for Paul George’s blurry vision to heal; for David West’s eye to become less swollen; and for Hibbert, limping lightly after Game 2, to return to full strength. When Game 3 arrives and this series returns to an every-other-day game rhythm, the verdict here is that the Pacers, more than the Heat, will need to hit jump shots in fourth quarters and play better offense to win the series. Game 3, coming after a long layoff and therefore being its own odd duck of a competition, might be the one ugly game Indiana can win in this series; the Heat might be all out of whack as they return home and sit around for three and a half days.
However, Games 4 through 7 will demand that the Pacers — so utterly discombobulated on offense for most of the past two months — will need to find their best selves at that end of the floor if they are to finally reach the summit and put the Miami Heat at their Midwestern feet.
Can the Pacers — a team that has reveled in its defensive prowess, which has made life so difficult for its opponents — turn to the offensive end of the floor and make this expedition on the slopes of Mount Miami much easier than it was in 2012 and 2013? This is the delicious and fascinating question hovering over the remainder of a series that will weave a richly dramatic tale regardless of the ultimate outcome.