The Indiana Pacers, having won a clutch Game 6 of the NBA's Eastern Conference Finals last night, will take their talents to South Beach for an ultra-critical deciding Game 7 against the Miami Heat tomorrow night.
If you're like me, you got what we wanted: basketball drama. There is real pressure on the Heat now, the group of guys who claimed they would win five or six NBA Titles. They won their first title last year, but if they don't win tomorrow night it will be a "sky is falling" moment in their quest to dominate the basketball universe.
All season long experts virtually guaranteed that LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade would capture their second straight NBA title. They won 27 straight games earlier this season and 42 out of 45. No one had a chance to dethrone them, it was believed.
But now all that's under siege. In Game 6 the Pacers out-defended and out-played the Heat led by center Roy Hibbert, the king of the basketball lane, and Paul George, who is fast becoming one of the leagues' three or four most dazzling talents who can do it all: shoot long range jumpers, handle the ball, pass, dunk, defend LeBron. Draw up a picture of a perfect sized player with all the right skills you need to be great and you would have a rendering of George, a svelte six foot nine athlete. Though not quite as talented as LeBron, particularly in brute strength, he's not far behind. In last night's game he drove on a fast break and dunked in a way as if to say: "Hello, all that you've been hearing about me being a really good basketball player is true, and I'm dunking on you."
This is beautiful, potential Shakespearean tragedy. An underdog team not believed to have a chance to beat the Heat is on the verge of doing so. They are on the cusp of this major upset because, above all else, they have grit and heart and play as a team. They hit the open man. It's not about who scores the most points; it's about winning the game.
The underperformance in this Series by the Heat's Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh and Shane Battier has been caused by a Pacer team that is frustrating all three of them. The Pacers are big and made it tough to get off open shots especially near the basket. Roy Hibbert is a mountain too high and wide to climb for these Heat. LeBron, who has been more of a one man show this Series, rammed into Hibbert in the lane last night and got stopped before scoring. As strong and athletic as he is, even he finds it tough to score over seven foot two Hibbert.
Looking ahead to Game 7, I expect the Heat to play tight. Knowing that if they lose they will get heavily criticized and all the wins they amassed during the regular season will be forgotten, they will be worried about losing instead of focused on winning. They will be worried about what critics will say about them, whether they're chokers and whether they so-called dynasty has fizzled. It's tough to play basketball well when you are preoccupied with losing and being criticized. They have felt pressure before and overcome it. But the problem this time is the Pacers have nothing to lose and are good. They have more players playing at a higher level than the Heat. Only LeBron is on his game consistently for the Heat. For the Pacers, Hibbert, George and other teammates such as David West are kicking in with strong efforts.
I sense the Pacers have emerged as a better basketball team. The Heat are overmatched. And the Pacers will advance to the NBA Finals, leaving South Beach in a partying mood while the Heat fans wondering whether it's time for the Heat to blow up the team.