Paul George and the Indiana Pacers were one win away from knocking off LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
The Pacers, considered no more than a fringe contender when the playoffs began, outperformed nearly all expectations this spring. They pushed the reigning champions to a seventh game and gave them arguably their toughest matchup in two playoff runs.
With a starting lineup that features four players 27 years old or younger, they are a team that looks poised to make deep playoff runs for the foreseeable future. But what else can be taken away from their matchup with the Heat?
Roy Hibbert is a top-five center
Roy Hibbert struggled to meet expectations after signing a max contract last summer while dealing with a wrist injury.
He struggled offensively in the first four months of the season. February was his best month, when he averaged just 11 points per game on 45.9 percent shooting.
His numbers improved drastically in the final two months of the season. His scoring jumped to 16.5 points per game in March and 17.2 in April (when he shot 57.3 percent).
Hibbert was even better in the Eastern Conference Finals. He averaged 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds in the seven games against the Heat, shooting 55.7 percent for the series. Not only did his scoring improve, but he looked to be in the best shape of his career, running the floor on offense and defense.
Hibbert's emergence on the offensive end has pushed him into the group of elite NBA centers, joining Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah and Dwight Howard. Few players in the league have the ability to affect a game on both ends of the court as much as Hibbert can.
Paul George is a bona fide star
If any one player proved more during the playoffs than Hibbert, it was Paul George.
The third-year small forward showed the NBA why he deserved his All-Star bid this season. Not only did he average 19.4 points, six rebounds and 5.4 assists against the Heat, but he did it while spending most of his minutes matched up with MVP LeBron James.
At just 23 years old, George seems to be just scratching the surface of his potential. It seems safe to say that the Pacers have a future superstar on their roster.
They desperately need to improve their bench
The Pacers reworked their entire reserve unit last summer, bringing in D.J. Augustin, Gerald Green and Ian Mahinmi. None of them were impressive during the regular season, but in the series against Miami, the Pacers learned just how unimpressive their bench really is.
Miami's reserves outscored Indiana's in all seven games by a combined 156-80. In three games, the Pacers bench failed to score double-digit points.
They will get a big boost if Danny Granger can come back healthy next season, but his presence alone will not be enough improvement for a team with championship aspirations. This summer they will need to convince some veteran free agents to take a pay cut for a chance at a ring.
David West must return next season
Indiana's most important move this summer will be retaining unrestricted free agent David West.
The 32-year-old power forward was excellent in his second season with the team, averaging 17.1 points and 7.7 rebounds. He averaged 18.2 points in the first five games against the Heat before suffering an upper respiratory infection.
The Pacers need to bring him back not only because he can score in bunches but because he poses such a matchup problem for the top teams in the East.
The Heat have to play two big men more than they would like against West and Hibbert and often had to use LeBron James against West in the post. He also poses a matchup issue for Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks.
They are a legitimate championship contender
Heading into the 2012-13 season, nobody thought that the Pacers could put up this kind of fight against the Heat.
That will almost certainly change next season, regardless of whether the Heat repeat as NBA champions. With Dwyane Wade’s injury troubles and Chris Bosh continuing to disappear in big games, the Heat look more vulnerable than they have since James joined the team.
With a great coach, a budding superstar and the league’s best defense, the Pacers are a team on the rise. They are also a team that will need to be taken seriously as an NBA championship contender.