The Indiana Pacers, after getting sent home two successive years by the Miami Heat, were focused all season on getting home-court advantage and beating their rival in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals. They couldn't get revenge because they were obsessed with their mission.
We believe in this locker room that we can get the No. 1 seed and we started the year with that attitude. 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. And we have to start from the beginning of the season.
The Pacers raced off to the NBA’s best record. The Portland Trail Blazers dealt them just their second loss on Dec. 2, prompting this tweet exchange between the Pacers’ Roy Hibbert and the Trail Blazers’ LaMaurcus Aldrdige.
“We will see each other in the finals” hung in the air like a big piñata—a big easy target to take swipes at—for the rest of the season. The Pacers were crossing from swagger to arrogance. The line between thinking you can beat the champs and assuming you will is not that thin.
Still, Indiana didn’t get its own way just yet. It kept on rolling through the first 40 games, sitting with a record of 33-7. It had a 4.5-game lead over the Heat for the No. 1 seed.
Then, the Pacers hit their first rough patch, going 6-5 over their last stretch heading into the All-Star Game. Their lead had shrunk to 2.5 games. The break couldn’t have come at a better time. They just needed a chance to rest and recuperate.
Initially, after the festivities, the Pacers seemed to be restored, winning six of their first seven, but then the wheels started to fall off. Beginning from March 4, they were a losing team for the duration of the season, going 10-13 over the final 23 games.
The only thing that saved them is that the Miami Heat were equally bad, going 11-14 over the same stretch.
However, there was a difference between “Miami bad” and “Indiana bad.” Namely, it was that Miami didn’t care, and Indiana did. Miami was indifferently strolling through the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon while Indiana was scrambling for all its worth, tripping over itself every other step.
The Heat’s Udonis Haslem admitted as much to Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick, saying,
Once we get our full group of guys back, and we get into that playoff atmosphere, and that competitive spirit starts to rise and that blood starts to boil, I anticipate us coming out and playing Miami Heat basketball, similar to the way we competed against Indiana. It wasn't that long ago, even though it seems long ago, it wasn't that long ago that we showed what we're capable of, when we're focused and lock in.
Meanwhile, in Indiana, the lulls were explained by desperation. As Marc Stein reported in April, there was infighting on the team:
Sources said that Stephenson and guard George Hill had to be separated on the bench during a 26-point home loss to San Antonio on March 31. And when Roy Hibbert made his well-chronicled complaints to NBA.com in late March about "some selfish dudes in here," sources say he was essentially referring to Stephenson, who ranks as one of the league's most improved players this season as he approaches free agency in July and is well-known to be a Bird favorite.
Furthermore, it looked like Indiana might have been the NBA version of a "rabbit," exhausting itself in the first part of the race. Certainly, the player splits after March 4 don't look like those of a team in championship contention.
|Indiana Pacers' Splits After March 4|
|Paul George (IND)||37.3%||32.8%||7.8||3.7||2||0.3||19.1||-4|
|David West (IND)||46.8%||25.0%||7.3||2.5||0.4||1||14.2||-1.8|
|Lance Stephenson (IND)||46.9%||37.7%||6.6||3.2||0.6||0.1||12.9||-2.7|
|Andrew Bynum (IND)||40.9%||0.0%||9.5||1||0||0.5||11.5||-4|
|George Hill (IND)||39.2%||31.9%||3.7||3.5||1||0.2||8.7||-2.3|
|Roy Hibbert (IND)||37.6%||0.0%||4.2||0.7||0.3||1.7||8.6||-2.9|
|CJ Watson (IND)||54.2%||60.0%||1.2||1.2||1||0||8.4||1.8|
|Luis Scola (IND)||50.0%||0.0%||4||1.2||0.1||0.1||8||-2.1|
|Evan Turner (IND)||41.8%||57.9%||2.9||2.5||0.4||0||6.4||-3.1|
|Chris Copeland (IND)||50.9%||46.2%||1.1||0.6||0.1||0.2||4.9||0.3|
|Ian Mahinmi (IND)||63.4%||0.0%||3.4||0.3||0.2||0.7||4.1||-2.6|
|Donald Sloan (IND)||37.7%||23.1%||1.2||1.6||0.2||0.1||3.7||-2.7|
|Rasual Butler (IND)||42.6%||37.5%||1.1||0.5||0.1||0.4||3.2||-0.6|
|Lavoy Allen (IND)||51.5%||0.0%||2.4||0.4||0.2||0.5||3.1||-0.5|
|Solomon Hill (IND)||46.2%||50.0%||1.4||0.2||0.2||0||1.7||0.1|
Paul George looked fatigued, and his .373 field-goal shooting proved it. Hibbert was becoming completely unglued, averaging just 8.6 points and 4.2 rebounds.
At one point, Indiana coach Frank Vogel benched him the entire second half. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star quote’s Vogel’s reasoning:
I considered resting Roy before tonight's game because he looks worn down; he's a 7-2 player that's played every game this year, which is very rare. He looks to me to be worn down. He's giving good effort, but he looks to me to be worn down.
All that made a difference, but the larger problem was that the Pacers were focused on the wrong thing. They were so worried about getting the top seed, they forgot about winning the title.
Anyone who has ever balanced a broom on the tip of their finger knows the trick: Watch the top of the broom, and your finger will follow. If you watch your finger, it’s only a matter of seconds before the whole thing topples.
And that’s what was happening with Indiana. Rather than focus on the end, it was focusing on Miami. As such, while the Heat were muddling their way through the doldrums of a weak Eastern Conference, the Pacers were struggling through it.
Eventually, in their penultimate game on April 13, the Pacers secured the No. 1 seed with a brilliant 102-97 performance in Oklahoma City against the Thunder.
They had an up-and-down series against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. They nearly lost after going down 3-2 in the series, but they held on.
Against the Washington Wizards in the second round, Hibbert finally seemed to dig his way out of his own grave when he scored 28 points and grabbed nine boards in Game 2.
Ironically, they were 5-1 on the road through the first two rounds and just 3-4 at home. Go home-court advantage!
Nevertheless, The Pacers were back. Crisis averted.
At the start of the Eastern Conference Finals, they had what they wanted back in November: home-court advantage and the Miami Heat. All the sputtering and muttering that had accompanied the team down the stretch was irrelevant now. They had the Heat right where they wanted them.
Game 1 certainly vindicated that as the Pacers came out and blew the doors off Miami, 107-96, in one of those games that "isn't as close as the score indicates."
But, in Game 2, the Heat’s strategy of resting Wade down the stretch paid off. He scored 23 points and the Heat won. Furthermore, when the Heat were facing a series deficit, they showed the Pacers they had another gear.
Down 75-72 with 5:33 left, the Heat amped up their defense and went on a 10-0 run. After that it was never a one-score game. They showed the Pacers the difference between walking the walk and talking the talk.
And, just like that, everything the Pacers had worked for, struggled for and suffered through was gone in an instant. Home-court advantage was no longer theirs.
The Heat went back to Miami, and any hope the Pacers had of regaining home court was quickly bludgeoned, as the Heat won both games by a dozen.
What followed for the duration of the series was pure comedy from Lance Stephenson, trying to “get in James’ head.” Talking trash, blowing in his ear (really?) and palming his face were among the antics used to try and dethrone the King.
The Pacers won Game 5, but that had more to do with the refs blowing whistles than Stephenson's romantic overtures. James was called early and often, aiding him in having arguably the worst game of his life.
Stepenson was more effective in achieving social media fame than his stated goal.
In Game 6, the Heat would assure there would be no Game 7, utterly dismantling the Pacers 117-92 in another one of those games that wasn't as close as it sounds.
Hibbert’s big piñata had no candy. There would be no “seeing” anyone “in the Finals,” unless it was on TV.
Ironically, Indiana could learn a lesson from the Heat, who made the same errors when they first came together.
After agreeing to their contracts, the Big Three of James, Wade and Chris Bosh assembled in a kind of celebration usually reserved for teams who had won a championship. James promised more than a fistful of rings. The festivities made the Heat a lightning rod for criticism.
Then, during the NBA Finals, James and Wade mocked Dirk Nowitzki, waking the beast and ultimately costing them the championship.
The Heat appeared to learn two things from that first season together: First, don’t celebrate until you've won. Second, always respect your opponent. They haven't violated either of those maxims since. Both of those lessons could have helped Indiana this year.
The Pacers got everything they wanted. They actually achieved their goal of winning the No. 1 seed. But that exposes they had the wrong goal. The goal shouldn't have been beating Miami; it should have been winning a title.
Furthermore, they confused confidence with bravado. Confidence doesn't need talk. Bravado is talking to cover up for a lack of confidence. When the Heat backed Indiana into a corner, the Pacers were exposed as pretenders. Their Game 6 meltdown is proof of that.
Somewhere in that obsession with getting past they Heat, they made a shift from believing they could beat Miami to assuming they would. In that change of thinking, they lost the series.
As Sun Tzu says in Art of War “He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them.” We've turned that into, "never underestimate your opponent."
That's all the more true if your opponent has already beaten you twice.
The Pacers' vendetta cost them respect for the Heat, and ultimately, the series.