MIAMI – In a ranking of the saddest, most enduring symbols of unrealized ambition in NBA history, it’s difficult to top the rafters of Los Angeles’ fabulous Forum in the spring of 1969, filled with multi-colored balloons that never were allowed to drop.
The balloons had been loaded up there on orders from Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, convinced that his team would win Game 7 of The Finals over the dynasty-in-decline Boston Celtics. Only the proud Celtics noticed, dialed up their focus – Bill Russell said he wanted to watch the show of Forum workers taking them down one by one – and, on the Lakers’ home court, grabbed the championship Cooke had presumed was his.
Forty-five years later, the Forum and its balloons have some company now in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Not just the rafters – the whole empty, lonely place, site of a never-to-be-played Game 7 of the 2014 Eastern Conference finals.
The Miami Heat rendered that game unnecessary, lights out, doors locked, by dismantling the Pacers in Game 6 117-92 and ending the best-of-seven series without the trip back to Indy. Miami beat the Pacers in all ways basketball – leading by 37, shooting 58 percent and hanging 117 points on what had been the league’s No. 1 defense, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh refusing to lose.
Miami beat them physically and mentally, too, from Shane Battier pushing a forearm across wild child Lance Stephenson‘s throat to put him on the floor to veteran Udonis Haslem threatening Stephenson from the bench in a GIF widely circulated on social media during the drubbing.
Unspoken, though, was how the Heat deprived Indiana of the essence of its entire season.
From the start of training camp – really, from the moment they trudged off the court in south Florida at the end of last year’s ECF, so similar to Friday’s outcome – the Pacers had targeted the East’s No. 1 seed for the home-court advantage it would bestow. Specifically, they wanted to know, if they locked up with the Heat again for the right to advance to The Finals, Game 7 would be at BLFH this time.
It would have been.
Only the Pacers never made it happen.
There were reasons great and small why it didn’t last the max, why Indiana never got a chance to flex a home-court advantage that, let’s be honest, had fizzled anyway (the Pacers went 35-6 at BLFH during the season, then 5-5 in the playoffs). Stephenson’s mouth and antics might not have affected the Pacers – so his teammates claimed – but they sure seemed to put a face on Miami’s quest to reach its fourth consecutive Finals.
There was Roy Hibbert‘s big fade, an 8-point, 4-rebound performance on a night that the Heat made sure wasn’t his. Miami’s use of Bosh and Rashard Lewis in a stretch-5 attack in which everyone is a deep shooting threat pulled thwarted Hibbert’s 7-foot-2 size advantage even more thoroughly than Atlanta had (with lesser players). Defensively the Heat found way to make Hibbert just as uncomfortable and then the big fella’s sensitive side took over, completing the task. The guy who averaged 22.1 points and 11.4 rebounds while shooting 55.7 percent in last year’s ECF against Miami slumped to 10.8, 7.7 and 41.5 percent.
The most important, elephant-in-the-room-sized reason, though, was that Indiana could not crack Miami’s code. It doesn’t have the star power, barely has the manpower and never could rise to the occasions – five players tied together as one – for any sustained success.
As bad as Game 6 was, and it was stenchified, the Pacers admitted afterward that their troubles in the series began in Game 2, which had slipped away late, pilfering the home court right there and squandering their chance to put the Heat in a 2-0 hole.
That was a mistake. Getting reckless with the ball and blowing a big lead in Game 3, another mistake. Game 4? A wire-to-wire mistake. Roll them all together and you get a team that wants to chase championship vs. a team that already owns two and is aiming for three.
“Everything starts and ends with the Miami Heat,” forward David West said. “You have to have a team that can survive and get you through a tough regular season, but ultimately you’ve got to be able to beat Miami to get to The Finals.
“This whole year, we competed to get to this moment. We just weren’t able to come through it. They’re built for these moments. Their pedigree shows in these moments, just how everybody on their team does their job. Particularly in these moments, they do it at a high level. They don’t have any breakdowns.”
Indiana has flaws and challenges. Bidding to retain free agent-to-be Stephenson, and at what price, will be a pressing one, requiring guesses as to how his psyche melds with a multimillion-dollar, guaranteed contract. Rounding up some perimeter shooting seems a must.
Coach Frank Vogel might need to find himself a new “bad cop” on the bench to keep the pressure on a squad that got too easily satisfied along the way. And basketball boss Larry Bird is going to have to get back on the horse after being thrown not once (Andrew Bynum signing) but twice (Evan Turner trade).
Here’s the trickiest part: James isn’t retiring anytime soon. What players such as Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and others went through being born too close to Michael Jordan‘s birth date, the Pacers are facing with regard to Miami’s best player and the team on which he romps.
“We’re in the LeBron James era,” West said after the game. “We fully understand that.”
West likened James to Shaquille O’Neal, another player whose size and skill set warped normal games. Beating James and the Heat, same as beating the big man, requires better personnel (to counter James’ many styles), a deeper roster (to dole out fouls when needed) and a resolve to pull it together. Oh, and one more thing …
“They’ve got that gear that continues to elude us in the moment,” West said. “We can compete in the year, tough and well enough, to beat them for the top seed. But in these moments, the Game 2 moments, this Game 6 moment, it just eludes us.”
A fair question from Pacers fans and NBA followers would be: For how long? West, Vogel and the others felt their team took a considerable step this season, running down that No. 1 seed, winning 56 games and beating better opponents in the first two rounds than a year ago.
Still, getting bounced by Miami for a third consecutive season has gotten old, and the Pacers will need to make sure their act has not.
Earlier in the series, on an off-day, Donnie Walsh – longtime Indiana exec who serves now as a consultant – talked of the 1997-2000 Pacers, Reggie Miller-led and Larry Bird-coached. After the first edition of Shaq’s and Kobe Bryant‘s Lakers beat them for the title, on the heels of two misses in the East finals, Bird told Walsh that Pacers group had nothing left. Changes were made, not the least of which was Bird hanging up his whiteboard, and by the time Indiana reached the 2004 conference finals, the roster had been remade.
West said he didn’t think this squad is at that point, though he understood why the question might get asked. This league has a history, too, of excellent also-rans that never quite broke through.
“We’re in the midst of that,” West said. “This is the third year that they’ve knocked us out, two straight years in the conference finals. It can’t deter us. It can’t deter us from the work we know is ahead of us.”
That’s for the long term, gearing up again in October with a focus on May.
Short term, there will be a big, empty field house in downtown Indianapolis Sunday evening. It was supposed to be the Pacers’ partner, alive and loud and stomping on the clutch so they actually could find that elusive gear.
Instead, it will be dark, a reminder of what could have been and a variation on Hemingway’s shortest saddest story ever (“For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn”).
The sign will be posted there in spirit. “Home court, Game 7: Never needed.”