INDIANAPOLIS – These were the Indiana Pacers who had raised all the hopes in the dark of winter. Clear of purpose, balanced of scoring, and determined that no one was coming into their house and pushing them around. Especially no one named LeBron.
Spring, you might have noticed, has been a good deal more unsteady. But not Sunday.
Maybe it was the opponent. There are three magic words sure to get the Pacers hearts' racing. The Miami Heat. They do have a way of pushing Indiana's buttons, with fingers bearing back-to-back championship rings.
“The one that we've been waiting for all year, the chance to battle this team once again,” Paul George said after the Pacers had a stress-free 107-96 Sunday drive against the Heat in the opener of the NBA Eastern Conference finals.
Maybe it was always what they have endured. The slovenly end to the regular season. The trials by fire in the first two rounds. The doubts and the darts.
“The last two months have prepared us for right now,” George Hill said. “Going through the ups and downs, and the outside trying to crack us and break us.”
Whatever, the Miami Moment of Truth has come, and the Pacers were plainly ready. In their last home playoff game, they trailed Washington by 30 points, and the starting lineup was outscored 90-48. In this one, they never trailed against the Heat, and all five starters scored at least 15 points, shredding Erik Spoelstra's strategy of using a smaller Miami lineup.
“We brought a toughness, we brought an edge, we brought an aggression,” said George, who also brought 24 points and seven assists.
It moved Spoelstra to call it, “us at our worst defensively.”
This is just one game, of course. Anyone who knows David West from Kanye West understands that with the Pacers, anything might happen next. The notices came from both locker rooms.
From coach Frank Vogel: “It's a great start to the series. But it's just a great start.”
From West: “We talked about it right after the game. We're not going to overreact to this win. We know we haven't gotten their best shot yet.”
From George: “We've been complacent many times. We just can't get complacent.”
From Roy Hibbert: “It's not always going to be like that. We're going to be tested.”
And from Dwyane Wade on the other side: “This series is so much more basketball left.”
But Sunday was impressive against a Miami team that had won eight of nine postseason games. Imagine what a defeat would have meant.
“This is a game we needed,” George said. “We couldn't let this one go.”
As they stretched in the hallway outside their locker room before taking the court to warm up, one of the Pacers – it was hard to tell who – kept repeating, “They haven't been through what we've been through.”
No, the Heat hasn't. But both teams are eyeball-to-eyeball now, and it didn't take long to see that this will be serious. That was clear just about the time Mario Chalmers shoved C.J. Watson into press row for a flagrant foul. “It's the playoffs,” Vogel more or less shrugged.
Actually, for the Pacers, it is the playoffs. The road has been long and winding and hard, but Sunday suggested there was some value in it.
“We fully expected to be here against these guys, so we never doubted who we were, even with the way the season ended,” West said. “We felt like the season, the expectations, the pressure that we put on ourselves has prepared us.
“We've just sort of been plugging away. This thing's not going to be scripted as easy as folks would like to script it, make it a textbook sort of deal. It's not going to be that way.”
Whatever way it's going to be, it's started. Next time, LeBron James will likely do more than a quiet 25 points, and the Pacers will likely not have a 29-10 edge in free throws, and the Indiana pick-and-roll will likely not purr so effectively. This was just one night.
But 1-0 against the Miami Heat certainly sounds a lot better than 0-1.