Heat Advance With Pride, Schooling The Clowns

I can’t help you if you still dislike LeBron James, still resent the Miami Heat, still upchuck at the idea of a triumvirate gathering in Pat Riley’s sun-smothered kingdom to win multiple championships. Channel your anger at a terrorist, not at LeBron. In reaching the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive year, James and his mates produced a collective self-portrait of savvy, poise, resilience and general cool, all the more impressive when juxtaposed against the immature antics and radical mood swings of Team Knucklehead.

There isn’t much else left to say about the Indiana Pacers. Rarely has such a talented team left us so exasperated, even disgusted. It’s hard to believe this roster was largely assembled by Larry Bird, whose competitive legacy doesn’t jibe with the air kisses and cheap shots of Lance Stephenson, the pouting and AWOL acts of 7-2 Roy Hibbert and coach Frank Vogel’s inability to control the chaos. It’s harder to believe that Stephenson, after Bird warned him to cut out the stunts, began Game 6 by tapping James on the face, which prompted LeBron to briefly confront Sir Lance-a-Tot before continuing with the proudest form of revenge: 11 points, three rebounds and three assists in the first quarter, en route to a 34-point lead and a complete disembowelment of the Pacers.

Oh, the stupidity in trying to rile LeBron and the Heat, who were put off by it all.

“Angry,’’ coach Erik Spoelstra said of his team’s mood.

Yet Vogel, who needs to take summer classes at the Gregg Popovich College of Discipline if he is not fired first, couldn’t stop Stephenson from his continuing his pranks. “I don’t think it’s ever good — what does everybody call it? — to tug on Superman’s cape,” Vogel said. “I don’t think that’s ever good.’’ Um, if Vogel can’t make Stephenson stop the antics, why is he the coach?

By game’s end, they had forgotten about the Pacers. They are off to the Finals, with five days to rest and ponder the possibility of a rare three-peat in basketball and sports history.

“I’m blessed. Very blessed. Very humbled,” James said. “And we won’t take this opportunity for granted. It’s an unbelievable franchise, it’s an unbelievable group. And we know we still have work to do, but we won’t take this for granted. We’re going to four straight Finals and we will never take this for granted.”

“The group loves to compete and loves to compete at the highest level, and be pushed to new levels,” Spoelstra said.

Chris Bosh cut to the heart of the matter. “This is fine and all, but this is not what we want,” he said amid the Eastern Conference title party. “It’s only another steppingstone to our goal.”

Vogel framed that goal in dropping a comparison that still makes me cringe: James to Michael Jordan. Again, LeBron lost that argument forevermore when he disappeared in the 2011 Finals against Dallas, a setback that always will haunt him within the massive legacy of Jordan, Mr. 666, which is not the sign of the devil but an undeniable staple of his preeminence: six NBA Finals appearances, six NBA championships, six NBA Finals MVP awards. Once Jordan reached the biggest moment, he never slipped and fell, even after eating bad pizza one night in Utah. James has slipped and fallen. Yet Vogel, in trying to make himself and his team feel better when they have no right to feel like anything but crap, made the comparison anyway.

“It’s bitterly disappointing to fall short of our goals and it’s bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row, but we’re competing against the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era, and you have to tip your hats to them for the way they played this whole series,” Vogel said. “I think it’s about not being able to reach their level yet. They play at a championship level. They have a way to raise it to a point that it’s too much to overcome.’’

James, uniquely focused as another history-defining series approaches, is grateful to hear such words. “Any time I hear my name or our team in the same breath with legends and great teams and franchises, it’s so humbling, man,” James said when informed of Vogel’s words. “It’s like — I really don’t know.

“Me and (Dwyane Wade) grew up watching the great Chicago Bulls team and the great Michael Jordan and the rest of those guys. To be able to play the game that we love at a high level for one another, for our teammates, it’s the ultimate. When you hear the comparisons, you respect it. You’re humbled by it. You just feel like while you’re in the moment hopefully, while you’re playing the game, that you can make an impact enough to where you move on and people will start comparing you to ones that’s in the game at the present time.”

To be in the conversation with Jordan — and Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Bird, Kareeem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant and all the rest — James needs more than two title rings. He will hear that ad nauseum the next three weeks.

For now, it’s a time to appreciate what LeBron and the Heat stand for in their championship prime. And why a clown act in Indiana must be retooled before it can seriously challenge the Heat. Bird can take one of two paths: (1) Believe in the talent, fire Vogel and find a coach who can coax maturity and professionalism out of these idiots and maximize their consistency level; or (2) trade Hibbert and let Stephenson leave as an unrestricted free agent.

Something dramatic must happen. Watching the Pacers is too hard on the eyes.

“We know what they’re going to do in these moments. And (we) weren’t able to, again, match what they’re capable of,’’ said David West, a veteran dragged down by the immaturity. “I thought they just were the better team. We got right back to where we got to last year, and they’re just a better team. They’ve got a gear that we can’t get to. We knew what kind of moment this was going to be. We just couldn’t step up in that moment.’’

“It’s difficult because we’re going up against a really good team that’s running for a three-peat,” Hibbert said. “They’re like a dynasty. They’re just a tough team to get over the hump against. I thought we had the pieces to beat this team, win this series. I really did.”

As for Stephenson, he concluded his embarrassing two-week debacle — first hoping Wade would re-injure his knee, then claiming James’ trash-talking was a “sign of weakness,’’ then the infamous ear kiss — by flagrantly fouling Norris Cole. Any thoughts now, Sir Lance-a-Tot?

“I don’t think I can get into LeBron’s head,” he said. “He’s the best player in the league, he knows how to play through that kind of stuff. I don’t think it bothered him at all. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s going to find a way to play great.”

LeBron even found a way to hug Stephenson afterward, somehow.

Greatness. Everyone wants it. Few know how to attain it.

Some should just stop trying.