by Mark Montieth | email@example.com
June 4, 2013, 2:15 AM
Editor's Note: Have a Pacers-related question for Mark? Want to be featured in his mailbag column? Send your questions to Mark on twitter at @MarkMontieth or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MIAMI – This was surely the happiest, most optimistic losing locker room in the history of the NBA conference finals.
The Pacers ended their season with a thud Monday, overwhelmed in their 99-76 loss to Miami at American Airlines Arena. Under ordinary circumstances this would have been an occasion to be embarrassed, perhaps depressed. But these aren't ordinary circumstances for the Pacers, who have the opportunity to return intact the starting lineup of a team that reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, and a potentially major addition in a former All-Star named Danny Granger.
It was a game they'll gladly forget. Despite all their professed confidence and optimism heading into it, they turned out to be a team that wasn't ready for the moment. It took a late garbage-time spurt for them to shoot 40 percent for the game. They committed 21 turnovers, 15 in the first half. They were outrebounded for the first time in the series, 43-36. Paul George, at once their brightest star and most promising player, had his worst game of the postseason with seven points on 2-of-9 shooting before fouling out after just 34 minutes of playing time.
Still, by the time the media was allowed in the locker room, the players were talking with anticipation about next season. And by the time the media left the locker room, there was joking and laughter. These Pacers are too young to dwell on the past. They're already eagerly anticipating their next game, which will be the 2013-14 regular season opener.
“It's real disappointing, but at the same time I can only be proud of what we've done,” George said. “There's a lot of things we can take away from this and really be happy about. For us to get where we're at, not having one of our key guys (Granger), taking on the defending champions and the favorites to a Game 7 … it sucks to not make it an interesting game, but we did a heckuva job this year.”
The Pacers are now 0-4 in Game 7s of the Eastern Conference finals, all of which have come on the road. This one was along the lines of the one at Orlando in 1995, when they lost 105-81. The Heat were more aggressive, more confident, more poised, more of everything a team needs to be at a time like this. It played like the team that won last year's championship and won 27 consecutive games during the regular season, not the one that lost three times to the Pacers in one round.
The Pacers had drawn hope from the struggles of Miami stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh over the three previous games. Bosh had played poorly enough in Game 6 on Saturday that he felt compelled to apologize to his teammates afterward. Wade had complained about not being more involved in the offense. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, however, seemed unconcerned Monday morning when asked if he planned to adjust his game plan to help them be more productive.
“We have a game plan going in,” he said. “But what I like more than my game plan is their character. Their track record. Regardless of what's happened to get you to that point, they'll play their biggest and fiercest when the competition is at its highest.”
“They're both big-game guys. The bright lights inspire them more than shrink them.”
Spoelstra was right, and he could have included 36-year-old Ray Allen in the analysis, too. Wade, who was averaging 14.5 points in the series, scored 21 and added a game-high nine rebounds. Bosh was less effective with nine points on 3-of-13 shooting, but had seven in the first half when the Heat took control of the game, and added eight rebounds and three blocks. It was, at least, a performance that didn't require an apology.
Allen, all 37 years of him, had left another trail of doubt by hitting just 9-of-35 three-pointers over the previous nine games. But, he proceeded to hit his first three three-pointers in the second quarter, leading Miami from a two-point deficit entering the period to a 15-point lead at halftime. He finished with 10 points, leading all bench scorers.
One team had been here before, and played like it. The other had not, and played like it.
“These guys have been battled-tested,” said Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who finished with 18 points and eight rebounds, but was effectively neutralized by the double-teaming Heat when the game was still on the line. “Unfortunately we've lost, but they've been through it before, and I think all their guys were making the right plays and making game-winning plays.
“So hopefully, we can learn from this.”
It might be a chicken-egg conundrum, but there seems to be something about winning a championship that instills a higher level of machismo. The Heat reflect that, throughout the organization. When the players walk from the locker room to the court, they pass through a hallway with a red wall that contains red raised letters. One sign reads, “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” Another reads, “Forged in fire between a hammer and anvil.”
The Heat are forged. The Pacers, who shed some figurative blood in this game, are left to forge ahead.