Never underestimate the power of chalk.
Neither the Miami Heat's slumber nor the Indiana Pacers' maddening fits of inconsistency could keep the cream from rising to the top. The route had more roadblocks than anyone could have imagined, but somehow the basketball gods still guided these two Eastern Conference elites to its championship series.
Predictably shocking is apparently the NBA's phrase that pays.
Miami moved to a perfect 8-0 in first- and second-round playoff series during the Big Three era, with barely a blemish on its playoff record. After sweeping the Charlotte Bobcats out of the opening round, the Heat made quick work of the Brooklyn Nets, killing owner Mikhail Prokhorov's $190 million championship dream with a five-game series win.
Indiana bent often but never fully broke in its return ride to the conference finals. The Pacers needed all seven games to get past the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, then outlasted the Washington Wizards in six.
After six-plus months of jaw-dropping, head-scratching play, it's the Pacers and Heat once again battling for a trip to the NBA Finals. Just like we drew it up, right?
The Pacers will tell the world their playoff path has been plotted since last summer—and keep a straight face while doing it.
In so many ways, they're absolutely right. This is where Indiana expected to be: back in the Eastern Conference Finals, squaring off with the Heat—this time with home-court advantage on its side.
"The fact that Game 7 of the conference finals wasn't in our home building we felt was the difference in a trip to the Finals, and we're going to do everything in our power to get a Game 7 in our building," Pacers forward David West said in November, via ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. "And we have to start from the beginning of the season."
The Pacers talked a big game and, for months, backed up every single word. They won their first nine games of the 2013-14 season, held a 33-7 record at the 40-game mark and carried a brilliant 40-12 record into the All-Star break.
Their offense was serviceable (102.2 points per 100 possessions prior to the break), but that was good enough when paired with their historically dominant defense. Indiana's pre-break defensive efficiency (93.6) was better than any this league had seen since tightening the restrictions on hand-checking—which limited the amount of physical contact a defender could have with an offensive player—before the 2004-05 season.
The team that steamrolled into the break never made it back from New Orleans, though.
In its 30 games after the break, Indiana went just 16-14. The Pacers defense managed just the seventh-best post-break efficiency (102.3). Their offense became unwatchable (100.2 points per 100 possessions, 29th).
Yet the on-court problems were the least of the Pacers' concerns. Once a tight-knit locker room, Indiana split at the seams, as team president Larry Bird helplessly watched his group unravel.
"People ask me if I'm mad at them,'' Bird said in early March, via Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star. "I'm not mad. I'm disappointed."
The only thing giving the Hall of Famer hope was his players' refusal to play the blame game. That hope was dashed shortly thereafter.
Center Roy Hibbert blasted the "selfish dudes" he saw around him, via NBA.com's David Aldridge. Those selfish dudes, sources told ESPN.com's Marc Stein, were found to be just one selfish dude: Lance Stephenson, Indiana's talented, but short-fused swingman. Twice during Indy's downward spiral, Stephenson scrapped with a teammate, first point guard George Hill, and later, reserve wing Evan Turner.
Midseason acquisitions Turner and Andrew Bynum never solidified a spot in coach Frank Vogel's rotation. To get Turner, Bird had shipped out former face of the franchise Danny Granger, a move that seemed to ignite these chemistry issues.
Hibbert, an All-Star selection, became nearly unplayable after the break (8.9 points on 39.0 percent shooting, 4.7 rebounds). Paul George, a dark-horse MVP candidate early on, lost his efficiency shooting 39.6 percent after the All-Star Game. He shot 43.8 percent before the break.
West: We barely recognize ourselves when we watch the film from months ago. …We’re at the bottom & we’ve gotta figure out a way to climb out— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) April 1, 2014
Indiana's bipolar play carried over into the postseason. The Pacers came precariously close to a first-round exit—down five with 3:16 left in a win-or-go-fishing Game 6—uncontrollably shifting between disastrous (three double-digit losses) and dominant (four double-digit victories).
"They are as consistent as a sunrise. Or a sunset, depending on the situation," Pacers.com's Mark Montieth wrote. "Times are good? They relax too much. Times are tough? They bear down enough."
Ultimately, it was Indiana's rock, power forward David West, that provided some badly needed stability. The 33-year-old scored a game-high 29 points in the Pacers' series-clinching 93-80 win over the Wizards Thursday night.
Their route to this is stage is impossible to forget, harder still to believe—and ultimately meaningless.
"Everything is behind us, like we said when we started the playoffs—33-7 means nothing, how we struggled down the stretch and took a lot of criticism, that means nothing," Vogel said, via Kravitz. "That's behind us and this is where we wanted to be, at the conference finals with a chance to move on."
There is no joy to be found in the journey.
In the Pacers' mind, their journey hasn't actually started yet.
For the longest time, the two-time defending champions have been—and very well still could be—their own biggest threat.
Since LeBron James and Chris Bosh migrated to South Beach in 2010, the Heat never had a season quite like this.
Their .659 winning percentage was their lowest of the Big Three era. Their defense hasn't been this generous (102.9 points per 100 possessions) since Erik Spoelstra first filled the coach's seat in 2008-09.
Miami still won a lot of games—54 in all—but it's stranglehold on the NBA's throne felt more vulnerable than ever. It had a three-game losing streak in January for the first time in two years, another in March and a third in April to close out the regular season. The Heat dropped 14 of their final 25 games, a stretch made all the more frustrating with home-court advantage well within their grasp.
From a big-picture view, Miami had a good but not great season. Considering this team was built to be historically great—"Not one, not two, not three..." remember?—this apparent vulnerability was alarming inside and outside the locker room.
With a medley of maladies shuffling veteran Dwyane Wade in and out of the lineup (he played just 54 games), James was left to do the lion's share of the heavy lifting. Even though Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant claimed James' MVP throne, the King still put up a sizzling stat line: 27.1 PPG on 56.7 percent shooting—the first player to average 27-plus points on 56-plus percent shooting since Shaquille O'Neal in 2002-03—6.9 rebounds and 6.4 assists.
With such a heavy burden on his shoulders, though, and his team's relatively inconsistent performances, James seemed to be wearing thin physically and mentally.
"It’s the toughest season we’ve had since Year 1 just because of everything that comes with it," he said in late March, via Jason Lieser of The Palm Beach Post. "Just going out every night where you’re the target and everyone gets up for you and we have to find our own motivation every single night. It’s not always about our opponent. It’s about ourselves, too."
It wasn't what other teams were doing, it was what the Heat were attempting to do.
Not only is Miami trying to pull off just the sixth-three peat in NBA history, it's also looking to become the first team since the Boston Celtics (1984-87) to play in four consecutive championship series.
The Heat entered the 2013-14 campaign having played 67 playoff games over the last three years, nearly 82 percent of a full regular-season schedule. That's a lot of mileage to carry, and it seemed to surface down the stretch.
"The regular season, the last part, was pretty rough on us with injuries, different lineups and just playing every other day for two months," Bosh said before the start of this postseason, via ESPN.com's Michael Wallace. “It was turning into a real difficult grind."
Each 82-game trek is a grind, but this was exhausting in a different kind of way.
"I just think it’s so difficult to do it year after year after year," TNT analyst, and new Golden State Warriors head coach, Steve Kerr said before the season, via Bleacher Report's Howard Beck.
As it's been wont to do, though, the playoffs seemed to spark the Heat.
This team plowed through its first two matchups with eight wins against a single loss. No other playoff team has suffered fewer than four losses.
Miami seems to be catching fire at exactly the right time, but there's no guarantee that momentum will carry over with its old rival back on the postseason schedule for the third consecutive season.
Beat the Best To Be the Best
The actual act of splitting might have looked different than we had imagined, but the elites have officially separated from the pack.
After all, the crazy four-point plays, extra sessions and Game 7, we've somehow found our way to this point: The top two seeds in each conference will wage war for the Eastern Conference crown.
This is precisely what playoff basketball is all about. No matter how it looked over these past few months, Indiana and Miami are clearly the top two teams in the East.
And they're far more evenly matched than the Pacers' late-season slide might suggest:
Heat and Pacers head-to-head this season: Wins: 2 apiece. Points: Heat 362-354. Rebounds: 147 apiece. Oh, this is going to be fun.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) May 16, 2014
Indiana has been shaken to its core, but still emerged relatively unscathed. Its results have been both brilliant and grotesque, but its resolve has never wavered.
"We’re going to trust who we are," West said, via NBA.com's Steve Aschburner. "We never lost our confidence in our abilities."
Who will win the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals?
The Heat fear no one, but they respect the Pacers. After a seven-game slugfest in the conference finals last season—and a six-game battle in the semis the year before that—Miami fully appreciates the tests that Indiana presents
"Of course we know what Indiana is capable of," Bosh said, via Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel. "Despite their struggles, we still see the same opponent in those guys that we did last year."
This is a classic matchup in every sense: size versus speed, brawn versus brains, immovable object versus unstoppable force:
Heat rank on offense in regular season: 2nd. Pacers rank on D: 1st. Heat offense in playoffs: 1st. Pacers D? 1st. *grabs popcorn*— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 16, 2014
It's the most anticipated sequel to a summer blockbuster. It's two elite teams chasing one elite status.
The basketball gods never bothered to update their GPS. The trip they've taken us on had more detours than some of us could stomach.
Yet they still delivered to us to our desired destination. Chalk ultimately prevailed, and NBA fans can start reaping their rewards with Sunday's series opener.