First place can't save the Indiana Pacers now.
All year, since they fell in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, the Pacers have emphasized the importance of first place and home-court advantage, seemingly hoping that would somehow bridge the gap existing between them and the Miami Heat.
The Pacers (barely) grabbed first place.
They're back in the Eastern Conference Finals, facing the reigning champion Heat.
And that canyon-sized disparity still exists. Not only does it exist, but it's more obvious, more ubiquitous than ever.
This series was supposed to be close, a tightly contested reminder of why we fawned over an Eastern Conference Finals rematch.
It hasn't been. Nor was it ever going to be.
There were signs—red flags that all bore the same message: Indiana wasn't for real. The Pacers wouldn't upend the Heat.
Long before the Pacers began lumbering through one of the uglier and more mystifying postseason expeditions, they were regressing to the mean, to their mean. The team that began the regular season 46-13, that happily lorded over every other organization, was a mirage.
Those Pacers were an abiding lie.
Indiana went 10-13 to close out the regular season. Its quest for first place went from a foregone conclusion to a stroke of luck. The race for first ended on the Heat's terms in a way. Their three-game slide to finish the season gave the Pacers what they coveted most.
Even when the Pacers were in control, though, the Heat weren't far behind.
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Although their course wasn't always pretty, the Heat stuck with it. They navigated a labyrinth of injuries to Dwyane Wade and an inconsistent supporting cast. They had problems too, and not once were they in danger of collapsing the way Indiana has been.
While the Pacers were busy suffering a near-letdown at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks, the Heat were off sweeping the Charlotte Bobcats. While Indiana was clinging to a series lead against the Washington Wizards, Miami was making quick work of the Brooklyn Nets, the same team that beat it four times during the regular season.
Two different paths to the Eastern Conference Finals. Two different teams.
One inevitable result.
Eastern Conference Finals Clarity
If there was any doubt that the Heat weren't a noticeable cut above the Pacers leading into the Eastern Conference Finals, it's gone now.
Game 1 could have been interpreted as a sign of things to come, as the Pacers' triumphant return. They saw the Heat's jerseys, and it all came storming back—the cohesion, the camaraderie, the work ethic.
The sense of desperation.
Rather than portending the immediate future, Game 1 proved to be an anomaly. The Pacers haven't won since and are continuously being outplayed by the defending champs.
Simply put: Heat have punked the Pacers. Process started final 5 minutes of Game 2. Been all but a formality since then.— Michael Wallace (@WallaceNBA_ESPN) May 27, 2014
Over the last three games, the Heat's offensive rating stands at 114, according to NBA.com. This comes against the league's best defensive contingent. They've carved up the Pacers, who have been unusually slow to react. They've made adjustments, and they've won the game in different ways.
The Pacers haven't.
This series is simple, the Heat are better than the Pacers on offense & defense.— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) May 27, 2014
Atypical numbers of pick-and-rolls won the Pacers Game 1. They claimed victory while playing to the Heat's strengths. Miami boasts one of the league's best pick-and-roll defenses. Such an offensive blueprint wouldn't be enough to win four times in seven games. The Heat would catch on eventually.
Where they have adapted, the Pacers have stalled—receded, even.
Nothing the Pacers have done since has worked to demonstrative effect. Worse, they don't have any answers to pacify the growing list of questions.
"Looking at the stat sheet, we outplayed them," George said after Indy's 102-90 loss in Game 4, per Pacers.com's Scott Agness. "You got to give them credit. They won this game at the free throw line."
Free throws had very little to do with the Heat's victory. Thirty-four freebie attempts most certainly helped, but they weren't everything. They won Game 4 because LeBron James went off for 32 points, 10 rebounds and five assists.
Because Chris Bosh abused Indiana from beyond the arc.
Heat take 3-1 series lead over Pacers. Nine of 14 series they've played with LeBron, Wade and Bosh ended in 5 or fewer games— Michael Wallace (@WallaceNBA_ESPN) May 27, 2014
Because the Heat have mastered this pressure-filled, expectation-fraught process.
Same Series, Worlds Apart
By no means are the Heat perfect—they're just better than the Pacers.
Time and time again, the Heat have reasserted their top-dog status. They've used the playoffs to remind the rest they're not good enough. It started with the Bobcats, continued against the Nets and has soldiered on while facing these Pacers.
Keep looking to Game 4, when the Heat were far from flawless, converted just 39.5 percent of their uncontested shot attempts, per NBA.com, and watched the rhythm Wade has tirelessly worked to establish vanish.
But they still won, because they're great. And because the Pacers are weak, as Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick writes:
All season, the Pacers tried to emulate the cohesion and camaraderie of their East rivals, shooting group photos and videobombing each other. But their cohesion has shown cracks as the adversity hit, and they have been unable to emulate the one attribute that matters most: professionalism.
One by one, they revealed their immaturity during the interview period, by revealing too much about everything.
Reckless adolescence isn't going to take down the Heat.
George cannot be spouting off convenient statistical imbalances after a loss.
Roy Hibbert cannot be complaining about his lack of offensive opportunities after spending most of the game in foul trouble, like he did Monday night, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst. It doesn't matter if he was angry or resigned, there are bigger things at play.
At no point after a loss should Lance Stephenson feel confident enough to address James' nonexistent weakness. And he most definitely shouldn't stand by such ill-thought bravado after yet another loss.
Lance Stephenson: "I have no regrets."— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) May 27, 2014
To this point, the way they have played and acted has been unbecoming of a contender. The Heat weren't making excuses after their lone loss. They spoke of playing better, of figuring things out, which is exactly what they've done.
These Pacers haven't just poked and prodded a sleeping giant with their immaturity—they've drenched themselves in gasoline and leaped head first into an erupting volcano.
Now they're wondering how they got burned.
You can sum up the last 10 Pacers quotes (about officials & each other) that I tweeted with 3 words: they're not ready.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) May 27, 2014
"No, no, no, no," Bosh said following Game 4, via Skolnick. "Mental crisis, that's for the weak-minded, my friend."
Mental crisis is for the Pacers, who have officially been exposed for what they are by a clearly superior opponent.
First place can't save them from reality, from the Heat, now.