MIAMI — What greeted Erik Spoelstra on Thursday wouldn't be welcome in any other walk of life, but it was what he wanted to see. What he needed to see. What was absent at times in months that mattered less. What was essential to get to the month that matters most.
"A very angry group," the coach said.
What were they angry about? Too much to chronicle quickly.
They were angry about the peripheral stuff, for sure, the stuff they couldn't control. Lance Stephenson's buffoonery. The officials' inconsistency. The Pacers' impropriety, their tendency during two years—and three postseasons—to talk much, much, much too much.
They were angry most of all at themselves, for letting it get this far.
"We knew we were better than this team," Ray Allen said. "But we still had to play at our best. Everybody just focused in and wanted to beat them. Whether you could talk about any individual player's antics out there on the floor... just dial in. Just dial in and stay focused. Don't allow for it to get to the point where they have control of this game on our floor. Just take it away from them early and do it often."
Play their best, which is something they hadn't done all that often this season.
Prove they're better, which is something they've believed all along, no matter their seeding.
"I believed, if we ever got a point where our whole team was able to be available for Spo and for all of us, that we could compete with anybody," LeBron James said. "Never concerned about that."
Heat 117, Pacers 92.
Heat four, Pacers two.
Four straight NBA Finals, with that series to start on Thursday.
This was their best.
This was why they're better.
This is where they can go, when they care.
"It was funny, talking to (Greg Oden) and Toney (Douglas), guys who haven't been around," Shane Battier said. "They were like, 'Who are you guys? This is not a team I've seen all year.' We said, hey, stay around long enough, stay around long enough, and you'll see a different team. Trust me, we're not bad. We're not bad when we play hard. Really, that's been the story of our team."
That's a team the Pacers still can't touch.
"I think it's about not being able to reach their level," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "Yet."
If "yets" and "ifs" and "buts" were nuts, then, well, they'd be Lance Stephenson. But they also feel stale at this stage, since Vogel's team said many of those same things 360 days earlier, when it lost the second of three series to the Heat. That night, after getting routed by 23, the Pacers spoke of their promise. ("The great thing is we're a young team and we are past the building stage," Paul George said then. "This is really our first year tasting success. The rate we are going, we see championships soon.") And they committed to capturing the top seed in the East, as a means of avoiding another elimination game on the road against a team they'd been built to beat.
They made it their mission to get Game 7 on their floor.
But, first, because of a home loss in Game 2, they needed to survive Game 6 in South Florida. They needed to survive the switch.
The Pacers led 9-2 early before the beating began, one that Ramsay Snow would have considered cruel. The Heat allowed just five points in the final eight minutes of the first quarter, while scoring 22. That was just a precursor to the pain to follow, with Miami outscoring the Pacers by an obscene 84-40 count from that inauspicious opening, and Vogel calling more timeouts than a kindergarten teacher.
Actually, he might have felt like one this season, dealing with bruised and inflated egos, and with fractures in the locker room that will likely become more apparent in the offseason x-ray.
But on this night, none of that was the primary problem.
Not Roy Hibbert's no-show, with just one field goal, and just four rebounds, his 10th playoff game with five or fewer of the latter. Not Stephenson's silliness, which included cupping James' chin ("uncalled for," James said), flagrant fouling Norris Cole and confronting Chris Andersen, a series of antics that caused Udonis Haslem to threaten him from the bench, with James smartly holding Haslem back.
Not George's tardiness, as the Pacers' signature star followed up a 2-of-9 struggle in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals by scoring just one point in the first half, before tallying 28 more with the contest decided. Not David West, the Pacers' rock, suddenly sailing passes out of bounds.
No, none of it.
The primary problem was in the home whites. The Pacers weren't winning on this night, regardless. There was no way the bloodthirsty Heat would allow it.
Not after they'd been roused. Roused by history, and the opportunity to reach a fourth straight NBA Finals, something no team since the 1987 Celtics of Parish-McHale-Bird-Ainge-Johnson had done. Roused by idiocy, the sort Stephenson had to spare, even Spoelstra wouldn't identify that as inspiration.
"To even point out, to make a comment about that, then you're just highlighting that guy," Spoelstra said. "So he had nothing to do with our series, our success in this series, how LeBron showed up tonight. We're playing for something much bigger than that guy."
They're playing for themselves, for who they believe they are, and what they want to accomplish.
So, you could say that, after an uneven season, they were mostly roused by pride. Chris Bosh's pride not to allow Hibbert to dominate the paint the way he did last postseason: "I really took the personal challenge to do a better job." And he did, not only defensively, but by breaking out offensively in the final three games, and throwing in a few fistpumps.
Chris Andersen's pride to prove he could have, should have played in the past couple games, even with a bruised thigh; he provided nine points and 10 rebounds in 13 minutes on Friday.
"He got pretty angry with me in the fourth quarter for taking him out," Spoelstra said. "Telling me I'm holding him back."
Dwyane Wade's pride to push himself through a rigorous program, to prove that he is still a worthy championship sidekick. Shane Battier's pride, and Ray Allen's pride, and Rashard Lewis' pride, to prove they still have something left to give.
"There isn't an article written about us that doesn't mention our aging role players," Battier said.
James' pride to keep working towards becoming the best there ever was.
"We're competing against the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era," Vogel said.
James smiled when told of that statement.
"Me and D-Wade grew up watching the great Chicago Bulls team and the great Michael Jordan and the rest of those guys," he said, after posting an efficient 25 points, plus six assists. "Any time I hear my name or our team in the same breath with legends and great teams and franchises, it's so humbling, man. I really don't know...."
And in the end, it really doesn't matter if we know exactly what it was that got them so furious and focused—that got them to flip that switch, and turn out Indiana's lights.
All that matters is where the Heat ended up.
In the NBA Finals.
Where they always believed they'd be.
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