Perhaps this was the plan all along. Perhaps the rough regression and resulting limp into the postseason were merely a prelude—a planned one at that—to something sweeter.
Perhaps everything we thought we knew about the Indiana Pacers, those bipolar basketball bullies, needs to be recalibrated to reflect a single, simple truism: These guys like being the underdog.
That’s certainly the impression Indiana left with its decisive 107-96 win over the Miami Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Even the final score was, like the Pacers themselves, ultimately deceiving, why with Indiana maintaining double-digit separation for much of the second half, the Heat’s attempts at lessening the lead thwarted at every real threat.
Behind stellar performances from each of their starting five, the Pacers served serious notice that the sordid struggles of the past few months were scaled with this series squarely in mind—that all the distractions and disarray were in the singular service of sweet, sweet revenge.
"It's a good start to the series, but it's just a good start. We've gotta come back with a strong Game 2." - Vogel— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) May 18, 2014
Paul George said Pacers needed to break bad habit of losing Game1s this postseason. "Couldn't give this one away. " pic.twitter.com/koQC4Q5gHH— Michael Wallace (@WallaceNBA_ESPN) May 18, 2014
You wouldn’t have known it watching Indy’s first two Game 1s, against the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards, respectively. Both were losses. Both ended in the kind of heated handwringing typically reserved for face-fallen failures. Both, we believed, painted a picture of these Pacers.
These were not those Pacers. These Pacers played with a perpetual passion—four quarters of sustained, succinct play. These Pacers pounded the ball down low, punishing Miami’s comparatively thread-thin front line with dump-downs to David West and Roy Hibbert.
Nobody, least of all the Heat, expected these Pacers. In part, perhaps, because these Pacers are at their best when expectations are least.
Lest we forget, it was this same Indiana team, by and large, that rallied down last season’s stretch to railroad the No. 2-seeded, 54-win New York Knicks, who were—by seeding, anyway—favored to advance.
Look more closely. The underdog’s genes are there. In the draft-day doubters that passed on Paul George; in the dozens of names called to the podium ahead of Lance Stephenson; in the belief that Hibbert—even at a skilled 7’2”—lacked the power to patrol the NBA paint.
No one has shouldered the chip with more vindictive vigor than Stephenson, whose recent remarks to The Associated Press’ Michael Marot encapsulate the Pacers’ psychological play (via The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette):
I think we like being the underdogs. We like when everybody is talking about us. I think it makes our game a little bit better. It makes us want to go out and play harder, so I like being the underdog and everybody talking about us and trying to bring us down but we stay together as a unit, stay poised in the locker room. It just makes us stronger.
Strong enough to not let a single win lull them into lazy security, as Indy’s so often done these past four months? Only time will tell.
Still, that they've been here before—have grown to love living on the razor’s edge—pales when posed with the accompanying fact: So has Miami.
Two years ago, to be exact, back when LeBron James was still dealing with his own doubters and detractors. It was then, in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals, when the Heat—having lost two straight to these same plucky Pacers after taking the opener—exorcised perhaps their biggest demon to date, winning the series in six en route to capturing their first of two titles.
If you’re the Pacers, therein lies the risky rub: Down 1-0, you’d better believe these Heat are heeding the same psychological cues, using their subpar Game 1 performance to fuel their own fire.
Bosh: "A loss in the playoffs is always a wake-up call."— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) May 18, 2014
More than any other player, Bosh’s performance (just nine points on 4-of-12 shooting and two rebounds) proved Miami’s play of luring Hibbert away from the rim is no panacea. Nor is, it seems, the basic belief that Indiana’s path back to the conference finals was mere fool’s gold—gangrenous chemistry disguised as a well-timed wake-up call.
As The Indianapolis Star’s Bob Kravitz wrote in his Sunday column—in which he predicted Indy to take it in seven—for the Pacers to prove victorious, there can be no such schizophrenia:
This has been a thoroughly perplexing team for more than a month now. Their highs are stratospheric. Their lows are depressions worthy of medication. They got away with it against the Atlanta Hawks, and they played just enough inspired basketball, mostly on the road, to beat the Washington Wizards in six games.
There can't be that kind of emotional inconsistency against the best team in the world.
The demons within, however, are what separate this Indy team from its postseason predecessors.
Too many times, we’ve watched the Pacers implode beneath the weight of their own expectations. To prevail against these Heat, then, means believing—knowing, even—that everyone else abandoned their expectations months ago.