It took a while to get here, the blank emptiness that comes with the season ending in anything other than a championship, but it doesn't get any duller the deeper the run. In fact, it might get more painful. The feeling felt by 27 fanbases to this point can now extend to the Indiana Pacers, who, at the very least, gave such a poor effort in the Eastern Conference Finals's deciding game that there was plenty of time to come to grips with the season coming to a close.
From the outset, the Pacers were bound and determined to let the moment swallow them whole, committing turnover upon turnover in the first half while simultaneously allowing the Miami Heat to live on the boards and create second chance opportunities. Indiana led at the end of the first quarter, but things quickly turned sour in the second quarter when their shortcomings not only didn't improve, but the Heat began to find some of an offensive groove. From there, it was a rout, one the Pacers couldn't get within 12 points of in the third quarter.
The Heat did a tremendous job tonight not only showing up to play basketball, but swarming defensively to put together a truly impressive defensive effort that makes you wonder why they're not capable of doing it more often. Of course, it's the same thing that should be asked of Dwyane Wade, who took the entire series off, but showed up in the deciding game to play the sympathetic injured hero, regaining all of Miami's love and adoration for him.
It was Wade's hustle, to the tune of nine rebounds, six on the offensive end, that really defined the kind of effort Miami had tonight. The Heat had 15 offensive rebounds to Indiana's eight. The Pacers can't win a game against the Heat if they aren't punishing the rebounding edge, the result won't get better if they're actually out-rebounded. The turnover story didn't help Indiana, committing 14 in the first half, and while they did a really great job not allowing Miami to thrive in points off turnovers, their inability to actually hold onto the ball and at least shoot it took away valuable shot attempts from Indiana all night.
The Heat deserve a lot of credit for out-Pacering the Pacers, and it just goes to show how dangerous Miami is when they're getting help for LeBron James. James had 32 points, Wade had 21, and Ray Allen helped pad the lead in the second quarter with 10 points. Chris Bosh was just 3-13, but had eight rebounds and three blocks. No one was particularly noteworthy for the Pacers, largely guided by Roy Hibbert, who had 18 and eight. Hibbert was mostly a non-factor in the first half with just four points, but a decided Indiana attack in the paint early in the third quarter with Hibbert and David West gave them plenty of life.
Unfortunately, that didn't translate to enough stops or translate to enough consistent offense to actually amount to anything. Four Pacers reached double figures, led by Hibbert, with David West scoring 14, George Hill 13, and Lance Stephenson 10. Hibbert was the only starter shooting above 50%, a testament to the types of shots Miami was allowing (which they weren't really allowing). Indiana actually shot better in the game, but the lack of field goal attempts made Miami shooting under 40% a completely moot point.
So the season is a wrap. A woeful, depressing, and saddening wrap. The Pacers finished with their best season since 2003-04, reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2003-04, and got within a game of the NBA Finals. But it still hurts to see it come to a close. The Indiana Pacers really deserve a lot of credit for the way they fought through this season.
They lost Danny Granger just before the start of the season, reached their lowpoint in a blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, falling to 3-6, remained below .500 a week into December, but came together as a team to win the Central Division and get to the Eastern Conference Finals to take one of the league's best regular season teams in recent memory to the brink of elimination, all while producing with the best starting five in the NBA during Paul George's breakout season. They Pacers earned everything they received this year.
It's unfortunate the Pacers had to come up short to the same team for the second straight year, getting run off the floor in the process, but the Pacers have an extremely bright future ahead of them. There will be obvious needs for this roster with some of the worst bench production in the league, but with a great, exciting, and hard working group of guys leading the charge, the Pacers are once against part of the Eastern Conference's elite after an arduous and frustrating rebuilding. The 2013-14 season can't come soon enough.