Pacers-Heat Becoming Eastern Conference's Latest Playoff Tradition

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Pacers-Heat Becoming Eastern Conference's Latest Playoff Tradition
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MIAMI — One quarter and one game away.

That's how close Dwyane Wade came to the 2005 NBA Finals.

"Oh, we had 'em," Wade said. "We were rolling."

The Miami Heat were, with a comfortable lead in Game 5 at home, on their way to taking a 3-2 lead. That's when Wade pulled a muscle in his ribcage, one that kept him out of Game 6—a Pistons blowout in Detroit—and limited his effectiveness down the stretch of a Game 7 home defeat.

That served as his inspiration until the 2005-06 season started.

"That was my whole workout in the summer," Wade recalled Friday, in preparation for the sixth Eastern Conference Finals of his career, and second straight against the Indiana Pacers.

"It was all Detroit; it was all the way that they played us. It was what they did. And we finally got back to that moment, no matter what we went through during the season. And we started off on the road. And we started off very well. I do remember that."

So can he relate a little bit to what the Pacers have felt since losing Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, a season after they squandered a 2-1 series lead and bowed out of the conference semifinals in six? Can he understand why the Pacers have openly made Miami their almost singular focus?

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

"I can relate a lot of bit," Wade said, laughing. "Obviously, we understand. We haven't been champions our whole life. We understand the other side. That's why we take no shortcuts. That's why we take nothing for granted.

"Because we always know there are hungrier guys out there that are in the position that we were in before. And you would do anything to get to the position that we're in now as champions."

This is what the Heat can't afford to forget as this series starts: The Pacers' desperation to make a mark is immeasurable.

Miami needs to match it, every possession, every quarter, every game.

Or else they'll feel what those 2006 Pistons did.

After all, no team has been in these Pacers' particular position since those 2005-06 Miami Heat—getting a second chance, in the next postseason, to eliminate a rival in the conference finals. But the rite of passage is actually a grand Eastern Conference tradition, one team forced to go through a more established one, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not.

The most cited examples: the Isiah Thomas Pistons losing to Larry Bird's Celtics in seven games in 1987, and then knocking them off in six in 1988; and Michael Jordan's Bulls losing to Thomas' Pistons in six and then seven games in 1989 and 1990, before sweeping them in 1991.

The Bulls never saw the Pistons in the playoffs during the rest of their six-championship 1990s run, beating five other teams (Cleveland, New York, Orlando, Miami, Indiana) in the conference finals on their way to taking all six of their NBA Finals appearances.

In actuality, the Bulls were the hump that none of the rest of the East rivals could get over, with the Knicks, Heat, Pacers and Hawks repeatedly falling to them in earlier rounds. New York and Orlando did advance to the NBA Finals in 1994 and 1995, respectively, both edging Indiana in seven games in the conference finals—but that only happened because Jordan was absent (1994) and then rusty (1995).

LeBron James isn't either at the moment, averaging 30.0 points on 56.4 percent shooting through the Heat's first nine playoff games.

And unlike the 2006 Heat, who came to the rematch with the Pistons with a different coach (Pat Riley rather than Stan Van Gundy) and two new starters (Jason Williams and Antoine Walker rather than Damon Jones and Eddie Jones), the Pacers have the same coach and same five starters as the 2013 team that got trounced in Miami in Game 7.

Uncredited/Associated Press

Still, even while slumping down the stretch, they did secure home-court advantage, something the 2006 Heat didn't have against Detroit.

"If we can't win on the road, then we're not the team we think we are anyway," Wade said. "So we can't worry about a Game 7."

The 2006 Heat didn't need to.

The series never made it that far.

"You think about the mistakes that you made the year before, and you try not to make those mistakes," said Udonis Haslem, a starter on that 2006 team and a likely starter on this one for this series. "Sometimes, even in a losing series, you gain confidence moving forward, because you know you were right there. And you know just with a few minor adjustments, it could have been a different series."

That's what the Pacers have been saying for months.

"They are probably looking at some things that might have brought them out on top of that series," Haslem said. "And we're looking at some things that we could have done better that might have helped us win that series a little easier."

Wade and James lost a total of three series to the Celtics from 2008 to 2010. They didn't just look at things they could do better; they also looked for better teammates. Both spoke of that subject Thursday, after they collaborated to eliminate Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett from the playoffs for the third time since, this time with the former Celtics wearing Nets jerseys.

"I think we can credit them for the team that we are today," Wade said. "Because they were the team that we had to get by when they were in Boston, and we had to learn how to win and learn how to beat. Playing them when they were in Boston made us mentally tough, because we couldn't beat them if we weren't mentally strong. We've enjoyed the battles versus them."

David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

As James put it, "When I was in Cleveland, it was a hump that I couldn't get over. I knew from that point that I needed some help.

"I saw the way they played the game, with Ray (Allen) and with Paul and with KG and with (Rajon) Rondo and the chemistry that those guys had, with the weapons that they had. And I knew from that point that I needed some help, because I felt like I would face those guys. I don't know if they thought that I would go seek help, but I did."

James spoke of how that Boston team, and those players, helped make him the player he is today.

Will Paul George say something similar about the Heat someday?

Does he need more help first?

Or is he ready now, with his current cast?

Will these Heat turn back their closest East challenger again, as the Jordan Bulls routinely did?

Or will Wade and Haslem feel what it's like to be on the other side, to feel like the 2006 Pistons?

"There's similarities whenever you run up and meet guys in the playoffs and you haven't beaten them," Wade said. "And you figure you are just as good a team as them, you just can't get over the hump.

"But if you keep getting your opportunity, you eventually feel you can crack that code. And I'm sure that they feel that this is their year. Rightfully so. They should. But we got a team that feels that it's our year as well. That's how it goes."

The Pacers go for redemption, resuming their rite of passage, starting Sunday.

 

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.

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