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A Mighty Prelude: Pacers 84, Heat 83

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

The regular season can only carry so many games that are weighty and leaded with real emotional gravity. A game with as much precipitating buzz as last night’s Heat v. Pacers matchup seems doomed to underwhelm, but this was the real deal–an ordeal that required each member of the decorated dramatis personae to journey to the end of their physical and mental limits and scrape out whatever they found remaining there.

The Pacers won, yes–their walk-off defensive stop poetic only to their style–and they receive a precious W while the Heat receive an onerous L. But it didn’t feel like Indiana necessarily outplayed Miami as much as they simply had more points when the final buzzer sounded. The 48-minute limit felt more like an arbitrary ending point–or actually like a ringside bell, summoned to send the boxers back to their corners before irreversible damage and injury begins to be distributed. Which team is better? Ha. The rightful, unassailable answer may never be known. For scheduling purposes we’ll always have to wrap things up at 48 minutes, seven games.

You didn’t exactly need to consult a Dr. Basketball, Ph.D. before the start of the season to find somebody who was willing to wager that the Heat and Pacers would meet in the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, that same location where the same teams held a bone-rattling seven-game duel in 2013. At this point in the season, the recent monthly splits of both the Heat and the Pacers sadly sagging off their impressive apexes, you can do what Jeff Van Gundy did while broadcasting the game for ESPN and note the ascendance of Chicago or Brooklyn or even Toronto up the standings and surmise that these teams look like more and more like David’s, prepped to slay a giant.

I say: no. I say: when you look at the distorted Eastern Conference you’re liable to see straight lines bend, like a hot-wavy desert horizon. Serious, recurring contenders like Indiana and Miami have–and this is like the job requirement of being a serious, recurring contender–learned how to negotiate the spiritually taxing ebb and flow of those marathon 82 games. Like the ocean’s waves, a team can’t master an NBA season (there will be defeat, and in the most humiliating ways) as much as they can only prevent it from mastering them. After last night’s game the second-seeded Heat, after so many weeks of uninspired slumping, after this defeat which will be proclaimed crippling, are still 8.5 games ahead of the Raptors and Bulls in the standings.

The sharpness, the physicality, the brutish precision that this game required from both the Pacers and Heat simply cannot be summoned (so I’ve read) on the nightly. Not when there are no legitimate upstarts chomping at heels with barred teeth. Not when the reward of a home court for Game Seven is so distant and theoretical and generally not worth it compared to the thought of resting a squad’s wise but aging and weary bench bodies. I’ve never been one for predictions but, barring total calamity, there is no way that anybody but the Pacers and Heat play in the Eastern Conference Finals. Yes, they will flip a switch in the playoffs and, yes, you saw last night what it looks like when that switch gets flipped.

Easy enough to stamp Indiana’s victory as Paul George‘s smooth 23 points and Lance Stephenson’s mercurial 15 somehow adding up to more than the empty calories of LeBron James‘ own 38 points. But this game was played with the whole team, and watching rosters compiled with this much thoughtfulness and emotional depth was supremely satisfying, a symphony of concrete-wall screens and nunchuck elbows.

Udonis Haslem, dusted off of from the deep end of the bench as per annual tradition, managed two points in 21 minutes–a total that belies the vexing frustration he brought upon Roy Hibbert as they battled in the low post. Ian Mahinmi‘s four fouls in 14 minutes were hardly slow-footed blunders but more like wisely budgeted physicality, his assignment–to disrupt–more than fulfilled. Chris Andersen has worked himself into indispensability, with his four rebounds and three blocks in a manic 19 minutes clearly Miami’s most impressive bench performance. The fourth quarter of this game very nearly reached a boiling temperature of blunt physicality, with both teams scoring 28 points from the field combined. Seven of those points were scored by LeBron, no surprise. But, would you look at that, there was the much-maligned Evan Turner contributing six of his own. Chris Bosh (8 points on 11 shots) and George Hill (4 points in 41 minutes) were the primary casualties of last night’s constantly invasive defense. It’s not an indictment on their games; with so much elite effort being expended on the defensive end, somebody had to suffer.

The Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers deserve to have each other as rivals. Their intensity makes for totally engrossing basketball. Their story is far from over. This wasn’t even Chapter 1.

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