One more time for old time’s sake (Pacers-Heat 2014 ECF)

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Doesn’t it feel like we’re in a time machine? Doesn’t it feel like we’ve traveled back to May of 2013 when the Indiana Pacers were a fresh challenge for the Miami Heat in their quest to win a second straight championship?

Ah, those were the good old days.

After the first six weeks of the 2014 NBA Playoffs this much is obvious, the road the Pacers took to reach the Eastern Conference Finals is vastly different than the one the Heat traveled. But the only thing that matters is that the Pacers made it. It’s been really easy to joke about the small amount of adversity the Pacers faced this season, but you have to applaud the amount of scrutiny and adversity they overcame in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

They were four minutes away from becoming the sixth number one seed to bow out in the first round to an eight seed, but David West and Paul George willed them to victory in the last three minutes of Game 6 and then Roy Hibbert joined the party and the Pacers finished what should have been a much easier job in seven games.

They were blown out at home in Game 1 of the second round by the young (but somehow old at the same time), upstart Wizards, but before Game 2, HIbbert guzzled down a drink from 2013 that was handed to him by Andrew Bynum, who was finally put on the island of misfit players for good. Hibbert went off for 28 points and nine rebounds.

When the Wizards answered back from George’s 39 point explosion in Game 4 by dismantling the Pacers at home in Game 5, West propped the team on his shoulders in Game 6 and carried them to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Make no mistake, this is not the up and coming Pacers of last May, nor are they the team who dominated a cupcake schedule in November and December en route to an 18-1 run to start the season. They’re a fractured group of individuals, who at times have looked just like that on offense. Yes there have been bright flashes of positives: George’s takeover in Game 4 against Washington, Hibbert’s explosion in Game 2 of the same series, Lance Stephenson and West’s performance in the closeout game against the Wiz. But for the amount of solid plays, there have been four times as many moments when the ball has stopped thanks to over dribbling from either George Hill, Stephenson, EVAN TURNER or George.

The Pacers don’t set even decent screens very often, they don’t pass the ball particularly well and to complete the trifecta, they can make the simple task of dribbling the basketball look difficult. I’m not sure if sometimes Paul George is dribbling the basketball just to look cool, or if that’s how he actually dribbles the basketball. Whatever the case, I’m expecting Twitter to blow up at some point during the ECF about this issue.

Have I mentioned that the Pacers are sloppy? I can’t remember if I’ve done that yet.

Did I mention that it doesn’t matter if the Pacers have looked like a team that almost fell apart?

They’ve reached the predetermined destination at the end of the road. Any result short of a rematch with the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals would have been a disaster, but at the end of the day, they reached the stage they’ve been waiting to get back to since last May. The stage when they ascended to the level of a true title contender. The stage when they became a household favorite (at least in my apartment). The stage when it was impossible to stop gushing about how big of a star Paul George was evolving into in front of our eyes. The stage that set up the only feud in the Eastern Conference that mattered this season.

I have a question (well okay two questions) that I want to pose to you the reader. What is the expectation for the Pacers in their much anticipated rematch against The Big Three?

Have we reached the point where if Indiana pushes Miami in a six or seven game bloodbath we’ll forget about most of the struggles the Pacers endured before those two weeks? Or are the Pacers so far past the point of return that the season is still going to be looked at as a disappointment if they do indeed bow out to LeBron for the third straight year?

Larry Bird has made it quite clear that this was the year the Pacers were going to conquer the Heat and head back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2000. Anything short of that and well, Indiana’s offseason might look worse than a braless Rhianna. The core five guys won’t play another minute together because Stephenson could very well jump ship to whoever wants to overpay him the most (he’s going to be a rare 23-year old unrestricted free agent). Bird could very well decide (or perhaps he already has) that the George Hill experiment is over and find an actual point guard to run the offense.

If the Pacers are unable to vanquish the Heat, they’ll fall back into the pool of (wannabe) “contenders” in the Eastern Conference who currently don’t stand a chance of ending LeBron, Wade and Bosh’s run of dominance.

Actually….

Have the Pacers already fallen back to the pool of (wannabe) contenders?

It seems easy to say yes right? This is a team who has barely looked competitive in playoff games. Vogel looked in over his head against the Hawks, who granted, were built to give a team like the Pacers problems due to the spacing of their bigs.

They were ran off of the court in Game 1 of the second round by Bradley Beal. They were embarrassed at home by Marcin Gortat in Game 5.

And yet, I still find myself believing that the Pacers are going to come out and avoid laying any silent but deadly farts against the Heat.

If there is anyone who brings out the best in Hibbert, it’s the Heat. Veterans like West understand when their best chance to win potentially their only championship is happening. Paul George has the ability to look like a top seven player, but I’m not confident in saying that he’ll be able to regain the glory he achieved last May against the Heat. He just hasn’t shot the ball well enough in consecutive playoff games. Stephenson is the wild card of this series. He could very well swing one or two games, especially if he plays like he did in Game 6 against Washington.

But as much as I want to argue in support of the Pacers, they haven’t looked anywhere like a team that has figured out how to beat LeBron James four times in seven games. We’ve seen what happens when LeBron feels even the littlest bit of adversity, he reminds us why he’s the best player in the word. Just look at what happened in Game 4 of the Heat’s second round series against the Nets.

After being ran out of the Barclays Center by a barrage of three’s by Mirza Teletovic in Game 3, James didn’t wait for the Heat to fall into a best out of three series to have his patent I’m-taking-over-this-effing-game-and-there-is-nothing-you-can-do-about-it game. It was the cousin of his 48-point Game 6 in the 2012 ECF against Boston.

Maybe we won’t have to wait as long for LeBron to add another vintage performance in these playoffs. The Heat have yet to face any sort of real adversity in these playoffs and the Pacers certainly present them with their toughest challenge yet, but I’m expecting LeBron to come out on fire in Game 1. You can damn sure bet he understands just how tough the Pacers can be, even though they’ve suffered a few flat tires along their drive to the finish line in the Eastern Conference.

Indiana has struggled to stop Pero Antic and Mike Scott from finding themselves with wide open looks behind the arc. So what’s going to happen when Chris Bosh sets up in the corner and LeBron hits him with a cross court pass that he’s quite capable of making?

Heat in seven.

Follow me on Twitter @Scottdargis

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