The 24/7 blast radius of sports talk can be a bit unnerving the day of a hugely anticipated game, and it was no different in the run-up to Game 7 between the Heat and the Pacers on Monday. If you spent the day reading columns, listening to podcasts and faintly hearing ESPN's exhaustive collection of talking heads spit platitudes over it all, Game 7 had a weird tone before it ever tipped. Seemingly everyone was choosing the Heat to win, but so much of the pregame chatter centered on where, exactly, Miami would go from here if they were to lose.
Chris Bosh would be traded, you could put a stake through the heart of Dwyane Wade and the other 29 teams better start aligning ways to free up cap space a year from now, because LeBron James had his finger on the opt-out button.
A day later, it couldn't seem any sillier. The Miami Heat essentially took one of the more eagerly awaited playoff games in recent memory and turned it into a blowout by halftime in a decisive 99-76 victory. Wade finally found his groove, Miami somehow won the rebounding battle after getting pounded on the glass all series and LeBron's steady brilliance served as the invisible hand guiding the Heat the entire way.
Suddenly, we're back where we started. Wade is still a championship-worthy (if aging) sidekick for James. Bosh's presence is exactly what makes this offense capable of being so damn innovative. And LeBron? He's taking the Heat to their third straight Finals appearance. Why would he ever want to opt out of that?
The Heat, and James in particular, carry a strange burden, one they not only accept but essentially brought upon themselves. For the team, it started when they threw themselves a parade for signing contracts. Miami's "not three, not four, not five" gag isn't going to be forgotten by a nation full of Heat haters anytime soon, even if it seems to become more prophetic by the day. James' own greatness was on full display by the time he was a junior in high school. Ever since, LeBron wasn't just measuring up to contemporary greats, he was going against the icons that made the NBA what it is.
There's one thing Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird never had to deal with, though, and that's the endless stream of new media. We remember great basketball players by their triumphs and not the journeys that led them there, but Jordan and Johnson and Bird all once found themselves in James' shoes heading into Monday night. They all played in Game 7s on the way to the title.
Jordan scored 28 to will the Bulls to a victory over Reggie Miller's Pacers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 1998. Magic finished with 24 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds in Game 7 against the Dallas Mavericks in 1988. Bird shot down the Knicks by dropping 39 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in an elimination game against the Knicks in 1984.
Point being, James' road to greatness isn't much different than those who came before him; it's simply more magnetized now. Heat-Pacers was a great series with a bloody ending, and that's it. It never had to be a referendum on James and Miami's "Big Three" experiment, not when there was still basketball to be played.
We can't let the Eastern Conference Finals pass without one more look back, though. This was a lot of fun.
This is a chart of the Heat's performance in the Eastern Conference Finals heading into Game 7 set against the performance of the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers, the team James led to the Finals before they were stopped cold by Tim Duncan and the Spurs. Notice how eerily similar they are: James was doing everything, and he was getting little help along the way.
LeBron being fantastic in Game 7 was the safest bet of all, just as he's been great throughout the series and the entire season. He feels fully entrenched in his prime right now, and there isn't another athlete on the planet who creates a better spectacle.
Even still, the Heat very easily could have been eliminated in Game 7 if not for one crucial development: James' teammates finally stepped up. The NBA will forever be a star's league, but it's still a team sport. To the point: Miami doesn't win Game 7 unless Wade (21 points, nine rebounds) wakes up, unless Ray Allen knocks down those three three-pointers, unless the rest of the Heat contribute to an astounding defensive performance.
It's a team game. Even the brightest stars need help. Just ask MJ, Magic and Bird. Toni Kukoc chipped in 21 and Scottie Pippen finished with 17 and 12 in the Bulls' Game 7 win over the Pacers in 1998. Bird got 22 points from Robert Parish and 21 from Dennis Johnson in 1984. All five Lakers starters were in double figures in LA's Game 7 win in 1988, led by James Worthy's 28 points.
These playoffs may end up feeling like another coronation for James, but even the best players of all-time can't do it alone.
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As the buzzer sounded for Game 7, there was a definitive sense that the Pacers had blown their golden opportunity. They had this series. It's impossible not to think back to Game 1, when Paul George's poor defensive positioning and Frank Vogel's inexcusable decision to take out Roy Hibbert allowed LeBron to convert a game-winning layup with two seconds left.
Derrick Rose will be back next year and the Chicago Bulls should be an Eastern Conference juggernaut. The Heat aren't going anywhere. Will the Pacers suffer a similar fate to the close-but-no-cigar teams that came before them?
It's easy to think back to the 2009 Nuggets, led by 24-year-old Carmelo Anthony, who took the Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals but never got back. The 2007 Jazz were no different. Helmed by 22-year-old Deron Williams, they got to the West finals before getting stomped by the Spurs' death machine.
Is this what's next for the Pacers?
Here's what we know. Paul George just finished his third season and is already one of the very best two-way forces in this league. Roy Hibbert is only 26 years old and won't get any less enormous in the near future. George Hill is 27 and Lance Stephenson is 22, and both are improving. Next year, Indiana will welcome back Danny Granger into the mix.
It might be true that George wouldn't have gotten this good this soon with Granger alongside him, but the integration of Granger next season should be seamless. It's also vital: anyone who watched Indiana's pathetic excuse for a bench this series knows Granger would vault that unit into competence almost single-handedly.
No one here is in the business of predicting the future, but the Pacers seem set up for a long time. George is now entering the final year of his rookie contract -- assuming he stays in Indiana, the foundation of he and Hibbert is enough to be one of the league's top young cores. Vogel, Game 1 apocalypse aside, has also proven himself to be a damn fine coach.
Whether the Pacers will ever come this close again is anyone's guess, but the future is bright for Indiana. With any luck, this won't be the last time they're duking it out with the Heat in the postseason.