The question is legitimate: Is the Eastern Conference title trophy made of tin, papier-mâché or Play-Doh? I pose it not to disparage the Miami Heat, who likely will win that object of dubious substance, but as a way of wondering if this team has faced enough real competition to suitably prepare it in the NBA Finals for the champions of the supreme Western Conference.
The East hasn’t had many multiple champions the last four decades, but when one emerges, it has been pushed before succumbing — the ‘80s Celtics had the Bad Boys Pistons, and the Bad Boys had Jordan and the Bulls. LeBron James and the Heat? They briefly dealt with an aging Celtics team, but the idea that they could be similarly challenged by the Indiana Pacers, who boasted out loud of only needing home-court advantage this postseason to conquer the Heat, is as absurd now as Lance Stephenson’s comments about perching himself inside James’ head. The Pacers are whiny, heartless and, as they’ve shown during an erratic four-month stumble, unworthy of this moment. “The little brother spends his whole life getting beat up by the big brother, getting beaten in sporting events, one-on-one basketball and what not,” said Indiana’s overmatched coach, Frank Vogel. “And all (those) years of getting beat up builds them up to the point where they ultimately take on the big brother. That’s what we’re hoping to do.’’
If Vogel means overcoming the big brother, the Pacers may have to wait another year, assuming they return in their current perplexing, exasperating, inconsistently functioning form. In a game they needed to avoid a 1-3 hole and the prospect of imminent elimination, the Pacers again were beset by defensive lapses, ill-timed turnovers, foul trouble and missed free throws in a 102-90 loss in Game 4. Not surprisingly, Stephenson rendered himself an early no-show — zero points, three fouls in the first half — after foolishly suggesting that James’ trash-talking binge in the previous game was a psychological conquest. “To me, it’s a sign of weakness,” Stephenson had said Sunday. “(People) used to say that to me: I’m going to do something to get you mad. Now he’s trying to do it to me. I feel like there’s a weakness, and I feel like I’m doing something right to get underneath his skin.”
LeBron’s only weakness in Game 4 was his celebratory shimmy when the result was in hand. It wasn’t nearly as pronounced and emotional as the display he rocked in Game 3, probably because he knows the Pacers aren’t the serious threat they were last year. When Stephenson melts in his own words, it just serves to give his teammates someone to blame beyond themselves. After James responded with 32 points and 10 rebounds, he simply laughed about Stephenson, saying, “I got a smirk out of it. I don’t need any motivation. I’m motivated enough to try to get back to the Finals.” The Pacers weren’t as kind to Stephenson, who becomes a free agent in July and might end up elsewhere, despite his considerable talents — a fate that also may await the maddening Roy Hibbert, who returned to his familiar down cycle with no points and four fouls.
If they had any semblance of a soul, they wouldn’t be say anything and spending their energy on embarrassment control for Game 5.
“When you make comments regarding trash talking and just being caught up between another player in a matchup, you got to bring it,” Pacers star Paul George said. “You got to bring it. I’m pretty sure a lot of people were going to be tuned in to see what Lance was going to do because of what he said. You know, Lance is young, and that’s a teaching point. Sometimes, you’ve just got to watch what you say. You’re on the big stage. Everything we say is going to be bulletin-board material. It’s really going to have a powerful meaning behind it. We’ve just got to be smarter with situations and just voicing our opinion sometimes.”
“We got to stay away from giving guys bulletin board material,” Pacers veteran David West said.
Not that the bigmouth was listening. “I have no regrets,’’ said Stephenson, who never learned from regrettably flashing a choke sign at James in the 2012 playoffs. “I tried to play ball, I tried to get inside his head and I guess he stepped up and got the win. I can take the heat, I can take the fire.”
Hibbert, meanwhile, was singing a familiar sad song: blaming Vogel for not getting him the ball early, which apparently justifies not showing up, shooting 0 for 4 from the field and delivering a minus-23 in point efficiency. “The game plan really wasn’t to utilize me as much; I’m just trying to be effective as I can,” said Hibbert, who now has gone scoreless in six of his last 21 games. “Would I like a little bit more touches early on? Yeah. But that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes.”
Or how the Hibbert self-destructs for his $58 million.
James will take the return visit to the Finals — for the fourth straight year. This series barely has been more taxing than the five-game victory over Brooklyn and four-game sweep of Charlotte. The Heat may enter the Finals extraordinarily rested, while San Antonio and Oklahoma City wear each other out in the Western Conference finals, but is the East tournament the NBA equivalent of a side stage at Lollapalooza? Listening to future Hall of Famers in Miami’s locker room discuss Stephenson, they almost sound disappointed not to have been challenged in this series. Have the Heat had it too easy so far?
“We played Boston a lot, and they made it more than just about basketball, and they beat us in the mental game as well as the physical game,” Dwyane Wade said. “We learned that the only way we’re going to beat them is if we beat them playing the game of basketball.”
Said Ray Allen: “He’s a young kid and he’s got many more years in this league. That’s a lesson learned for him early in his career.”
Nor was it wise when George, who generally has matured as a leader even as his game ebbs and flows, blamed the officials for “home cooking.’’ While the Heat were awarded 17 more free throws, the Pacers can’t complain when they make only 11 of 17 from the foul line. There was one bad call late in the fourth quarter when Stephenson was whistled for a phantom offensive foul against a flopping Wade. But if Stephenson doesn’t paint himself into villainous holes, maybe he gets the call. Welcome to the politics of NBA playoff life.
“It’s just demoralizing when (the free throws are) lopsided,” George said. “I mean, I’m sorry to say, but that was the case. How rare is it we shoot 50 percent, turn the ball over around 13 or so times, out-rebound a team, and lose a ball game? I thought we did a great job. I just thought we did a great job. … But, again, they made 30 free throws, and that put them over the edge.
“I thought we outplayed them. They won this game at the free throw line. They really just were able to get to the line more than we were, but I thought we outplayed them. I mean, you can’t tell me we don’t attack the basket as much as they attack the basket. You can’t tell me we’re not aggressive. Maybe we’re too aggressive.”
No, the Pacers aren’t savvy enough. They aren’t ready to win championships. As James said, “We did only have five turnovers, seven steals, and 20 points off their turnovers. That has nothing to do with the free throw line.” This game was about who is serious in the East and who is not. The Heat, who made an effort early to feed a struggling Chris Bosh and watched him respond with 25 points, are deadly serious about a three-peat.
“We try to get better every single day, every single game,” James said. “When you do that and go out and play the type of game that you are capable of playing, you can be satisfied with the results. And that’s what we’ve built over the years.”
The Pacers? They played like the little brothers they are. “He’s got to make a decision at some point in his life that no matter what, we’re not going to lose this fight anymore,” said Vogel, Mr. Analogy. “We’re at that point.”
Seems that decision already has been made. There are big brothers and little brothers, alpha dogs and bow wows.