Jonathan Abrams from Grantland wrote an incredibly good oral history on the Kings/Lakers tussle in 2002. That rivalry was a 3 year culmination of bad blood, the classic rise to the top of the young team and the old champion trying to keep them down. Sometimes the young team breaks through, other times they don’t. Jordan’s Bulls needed a couple of seasons before they finally took down the Bad Boys in Detroit. The Knicks were a very good team in the 90′s, but could never get past Jordan’s Bulls. The “Best Starting 5 Alive” Pistons of the mid 2000′s defeated Miami’s Shaq & Wade in the 05 Conference Finals in 7 games, but the Heat on the way to their first ever championship beat them the next year. The point is, these matchups defined eras. These rivalries were heightened more when the team chasing the champion actually defeated them. It makes it that much more compelling. That’s whats at stake in Heat/Pacers Part III.
Regardless of whatever has happened in the last 3 months to Indiana, this is what they got the #1 seed for. I feel like looking at this series is like looking into a window of Lakers/Kings back then. The Lakers had beaten the Kings the 2 previous postseasons, and were dismissive of them. The Kings felt like they had to get homecourt advantage in order to get past the Lakers. They got it in 2002, and we were treated to one of the most compelling series in the history of the game. We’ll remember that the Lakers essentially won the Finals in that series, and we’ll remember Sacramento blowing a chance in a 7th game at home to change the way the Shaq/Kobe dynasty is viewed. The Kings ended up being a footnote in history, because despite that great season it means nothing if you can’t slay the dragon.
The Indiana Pacers have a chance to make history for themselves and stop something historical in Miami’s threepeat chase and an unprecedented 4 straight finals. It’s appropriate that it’s these two with the Finals standing off to the distance. With all the struggles the Pacers have gone through, it will be nothing compared to what a loss in this series will do to or for them. It could change their franchise and send them spiraling in a different direction. Frank Vogel’s job will be thrown into question, they may have to rethink their ideas of how their roster is constructed and overall a loss makes their 56 win null and void. It’s just the way we all look at things now. The totality of the season pales in comparison to what the ultimate endgame is, and that’s a championship.
For Miami this is another opportunity to vanquish their greatest competition in the conference and change Indiana’s perception of itself as a whole. The Heat go to the Finals and it’s an opportunity to do something that should be considered one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of basketball. It isn’t hyperbole, it’s fact. In this era with all the extra playoff games and all the extra scrutiny LeBron James and his mates have played through the past 4 seasons it would be a special accomplishment. If Miami somehow lost this series, then they go into an offseason wondering if they’ve gone as far as they could go as a group. Not to say that the big 3 will automatically disband, but when you have to question it in the immediacy of a playoff loss perception is reality. Does a guy like Chris Bosh despite everything he’s said about staying maybe decides that winning 2 titles is good enough? Maybe he’d like to leave and get paid the most money that he could get. How about Dwyane Wade? They’ll keep saying that he’s healthy but if you need a “maintenance” program for a 32 year old player in which he misses 28 games how much can the Heat as franchise trust to commit to him? Obviously this all coincides with what LeBron James will do or not do.
LeBron has found a home in Miami and has had the best moments of his career to date here. What he’s up against now is measuring himself to the best in history. How many titles can he amass while he still is in his prime years? Does he trust Pat Riley enough to continue to retool and reshape this team so they can remain in the championship conversation in the next 5 years? More importantly does LeBron see Wade as his running mate or as someone he has to drag to the finish line on his broad shoulders? These are legitimate questions whether you’d want to admit them or not. The Heat’s Big 3 were unselfish enough to take discounts on their contracts when they were formed. If I was a betting man (and I’m not) I’d have to seriously doubt that all three players would choose the same fate.
All of this stuff swirling around the series about both of these franchises is very compelling. Can Paul George break through and become a superstar in the eyes of everyone earlier than expected? Will Lance Stephenson (playing for a big payday) be able to avoid the bad moments and be the guy who caused Miami so many problems in the series last season? Or will he crumble? Will we see the Roy Hibbert that’s dominated Miami, or will we see the one that disappears into the ether? The Pacers (still looking for their first title as a franchise) can stop history and make their own. I love this series for all these questions, and I love this series because it’s the classic “Trying to take the old warrior out” series. Indiana and Miami have split the last 14 games, and I expect nothing but a classic 7 game tussle between 2 of the best 4 teams left in basketball. Who wins? A lot of people are picking Miami and rightfully so with Indiana’s struggles, but sometimes who knows, maybe the sight of Miami across the lines awakens something in them that we haven’t seen in completion for awhile. Whatever the outcome, the landscape of the league changes and that’s what makes it great for basketball. Let’s get it on.