Heat vs. Pacers, Game 7: All on the line for LeBron James and Miami

Ronald Martinez

Not only is Game 7 a win-or-go-home scenario for the Miami Heat, it's a referendum on LeBron James and the entire "Big 3" era.

This wasn't supposed to happen yet. After five years, maybe four, but not this soon. The Heat were supposed to be immune from the physical effects of winning championships. Hubris, greed, ego? Sure, those are always in play in South Beach, and they are to some degree today as well.

But the reason the Heat are facing a Game 7 against the upstart Indiana Pacers is as old as time itself. They are not immune, as it turns out, from age and injury.

Dwyane Wade is a shell of his former self and Chris Bosh has been reduced to a stretch four who doesn't rebound. Both are hurt and both have seemingly lost the confidence of LeBron James, who acknowledged their struggles after Game 6 while Wade was down the hall asking for more shots.

This takes nothing away from the Pacers, who have displayed an uncommon resiliency throughout this series. They had Game 1 snatched away from them and they rallied to win Game 2. LeBron went supernova in Game 3 and they evened it up in Game 4. The Heat won Game 5 convincingly and the Pacers did the same in Game 6.

So, here we are with a Game 7 that wasn't supposed to happen between one team facing its own early mortality and another playing well past the point of expectation. For one team, Game 7 is about survival. For the other, it's about opportunity.

If the Heat lose this game, it would be a disaster. It would mark the first three years of their grand experiment as a massive disappointment because there was no Plan B. It was either win or disintegrate. There's no history here to bind these players together, no long struggle from the ground up where they overcame adversity together in any real sense like the elite teams that came before them. That was their choice, not ours, and these are the consequences.

LeBron didn't come to Miami to set down roots; he came to win. Two years ago, he took all the criticism after the Heat lost to Dallas in the Finals, but this year he has stood alone as Miami's savior. The question for him is whether he goes full Cleveland and tries to do it himself or whether he can involve his more-heralded teammates in a collective effort.

That suggests he has a choice, but Wade and Bosh's performance indicate otherwise. If they can't get it together, LeBron will have to carry them over the finish line. This has never been his preferred method, but he seems more at peace with the prospects this time around.

The Pacers have no fear and enough disdain for Miami. Somewhere, Kevin Garnett and Joakim Noah are smiling and cursing appreciatively.

Indiana, meanwhile, has accepted the challenger's role that has been handed down by the Celtics and Bulls, and they can finish the job that the others started. The Pacers have no fear and enough disdain for Miami. Somewhere, Kevin Garnett and Joakim Noah are smiling and cursing appreciatively.

On the subject of cursing, Roy Hibbert has been properly shamed and fined for his boorish "No homo" line. It was disappointing because we all thought Hibbert was better than that, but not surprising to anyone who has hung around a locker room at any level. He's been given a chance to redeem himself like Kobe Bryant and Noah, and here's hoping he does just that. Changing attitudes doesn't happen overnight.

Calling reporters "motherfuckers," on the other hand, was met with a collective shrug. It was unprofessional in a public setting like a televised news conference, but he did have a point. The Pacers have been overlooked this season and they come into Game 7 as the secondary storyline yet again. They can change that narrative Monday night.

Hibbert's ill-considered comments brought unexpected cover and relief to the Heat, but they also told a deeper story of a team that is feeling itself. They are confident and sure of themselves, and at this point, they should feel that way. Their gameplan has been better and their execution has been sharper.

They are a team on the rise with young cornerstones like Hibbert and Paul George in place for what feels like the beginning of a long run. Still, opportunities like this don't happen every year and it's a measure of how unforgiving and exacting the NBA can be that they may never get a better chance. Just ask the Thunder.

But as much as the Pacers have to gain, this is ultimately yet another Miami referendum. Indiana has pushed the Heat to the brink of self-examination, and that's always a dicey proposition for a team that has lived out its existence under the withering public eye from the moment it formed.

This is the moment we all knew would happen eventually. We just never imagined it would happen quite like this.

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