Pacers-Heat turned into one of the most telling semifinal series in years

Chris Bosh is a skinny guy, slender and sinewy, but not even he could have known his absence would leave the Heat so thin and their chances to beat Indiana so slim.

Or so it appeared, after Game 3, at least.

Then LeBron James and Dwyane Wade went biserk, and the rest is history.

But think of the imagery of that second-round series between Indiana and eventual league champion Miami, how bold, brash and unafraid the Pacers looked early on.

In back-to-back games, Danny Granger jawed face to face with the league MVP, earning a technical foul each time. In Game 4, Granger stared down Wade, taking yet another T.

Lance Stephenson flashed the choke sign at James after a missed free throw.

David West brushed against Mario Chalmers after the former Jayhawk slapped the ball out of his hand.

Through their own demeanor and success, the Pacers seemed to be teaching the NBA one historic lesson: Rough up the Heatles, make ‘em wander into Unfocusedville, and reap benefits.

Ultimately, the blue and gold came up short. But only the Boston Celtics played Miami tougher in its magical 2012 postseason run to redemption.

It's easy to forget after last night's confetti, but back in May, the Pacers loomed as a frisky roadblock, an untested but worthy semifinal opponent.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra predicted the series would feel like a caged fight, and play turned physical in a hurry and never tapered off.

Like his coach, James said the Heat knew coming in that the matchup would be a physical one. Neither he nor anyone else could have known it would be that physical.

Indiana not only went along, but instigated most everything (the clean stuff at least), the way a successful, veteran playoff team would.

"It's been a physical series, started by them," Wade said at one point.

Indiana clearly set out to be forceful with James, to foul him hard, body him up and play physical. Sometimes the Pacers were successful. Other times not.

But all the extracurricular activity put even more eyes and cameras on the Miami fishbowl, where frustrations bubbled to the surface.

Wade's confrontation with Spoelstra raised many an eyebrow. A few words was all, but then Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen weighed in, saying he would fight any player who did that to him. OK, Ozzie. See what ownership thinks of that one.

And was there a funnier moment than the 39-year-old Juwan Howard making a mountain out of a molehill over the antics of 21-year-old Lance Stephenson? Howard obviously didn't read Stephenson's apology on before growing semi-obsessed with speaking with the young guard.

To a degree, all these sidestories were linked.

Indiana tried all along to get in the heads of the Heat players. For the most part, that conscious effort was successful.

Frank Vogel called them the biggest flopping team in the league.

Roy Hibbert snapped at Pat Riley's fantasy-draft mentality by boldly proclaiming the Pacers were "built, not bought."

And, yes, mental warfare took a few casualties.

Because Udonis Haslem saw blood dripping down Wade's face, he went head-hunting, tomahawked Hansbrough and -- far from injuring Tyler -- only knocked himself out for a crucial Game 6.

Miami won the only game that matters, though. On the court, they finished the Pacers because they were the better team and played like it.

Chris Bosh didn't even play a full half of basketball, scored just 13 of Miami's 566 points in the series, but James and Wade only took their games to a newer, better level of dominance.

Spoelstra said James needed to give the Heat "a little bit of what we're missing."

Rebounding? Check. A dash of post play? Check. Points in the paint? Check.

Remember when Wade only scored five points in an entire game? The dude throwing up 41 in Game 6 seemed a different human being. Somehow, Wade withstood a balky knee, which needed to be drained after Game 3 because of fluid accumulation. After that procedure, tension lessened and Wade was able to move like he did in the 2011 NBA Finals against Dallas.

For Wade, it was almost a tale of two series within the series. In the first three games, he shot a horrific 18 for 58. In the last three, Wade hit 61 percent from the field.

And Indiana went south at the worst possible time.

Usually better in the second half during the regular season, the Pacers struggled mightily in second halves during their three-game, season-ending skid. Miami outscored them by 23 points in Game 5, by 16 in Game 4 and by 14 in Game 6.

The pristine aura of inevitability around Miami's title hopes, once scratched away like the flaky covering on a peel-and-win card, was restored by sheer greatness on the part of two future Hall of Famers. The viability of Miami's Big Three experiment, instead of being up for debate, has now been confirmed. They've raised one banner, to the dismay of many, and could very well win more.

Years from now, whether Miami wins four trophies or one, NBA historians will look back and say the Heat's 2012 renaissance began at the edge of a cliff on a Sunday afternoon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

As for Indiana, the Pacers returned where they belong, as a major factor in the Eastern Conference, and the Miami series officially brought them from behind the curtain onto the lighted stage. Derrick Rose could miss the entire season, so when training camp opens next fall, Indiana might be headed toward a Central Division title. But to truly compete for the conference crown, Indiana needs a penetrator, a better bench and an elite scorer.

Don't fret.

With Larry Bird still in charge, you have to know the Pacers are willing to stick their necks out, take a chance, be aggressive and let the chips fall where they may. If nothing else, the Miami series taught us that much.

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