By MIKE LOPRESTI
Gee, and the Indiana Pacers thought the last round was tough. That was just the appetizer. Now comes the main course; LeBron James au jus.
“It’s a whole different monster,” David West was saying of the Miami Heat — NBA defending champions and princes of darkness. An Indiana upset is out of the question in the Eastern Conference finals, right? Trying to stop the Heat, a team might as well stand in the middle of the interstate and try to slow down the next semi, correct?
Probably. Doesn’t mean it won’t be interesting. Just a matter of whether Indiana has enough Buts.
Miami is on a roll, with one loss in the first two rounds, looking every bit its regal self.
But . . . the Pacers have become notable Heat pests. They went 2-1 against Miami this season, handing the Heat 12.5 percent of their 16 regular season defeats.
“I was telling everybody, act like we’ve been here before, but embrace the moment,” Roy Hibbert said of Saturday’s clincher over the New York Knicks. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. Just because we’re going to the Eastern Conference finals doesn’t mean it’s the end of the journey for us. It’s step two.”
With James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen, et. al., the Heat have more stars than a planetarium.
But . . . the Pacers have become a model of glued-together pieces. All five starters led the team in scoring at least one game against the Knicks. Indiana will be like a group of ants, trying en masse to carry away the much heavier object that is the Miami Heat.
“This is the most together group I’ve ever been a part of,” West said. “At some point every day, every guy speaks to every guy on this team. I’ve been on teams where that’s not the case.
“We don’t talk about it, we practice it . . . we don’t have a bunch of ‘I’ guys, we have a bunch of ‘we’ guys.”
Miami has working knowledge of last spring’s title run.
But . . . the Pacers have working knowledge of having given the Heat some scary moments last May, going up 2-1 in their series and leading Game 4 by 10 points in the second half, before Miami restored order.
“We’ve learned how to close,” Paul George said, and Indiana just proved it against the Knicks.
When the Heat pull out their memories of the 2012 series against Indiana, they can chuckle over the brash and brain-locked actions of Lance Stephenson, who flashed the choke signal to a cold-shooting James in Game 3.
When asked about it later, James growled, “You want a quote about Lance Stephenson? I’m not even going to give him the time,” and dismissed the question as if he had been asked about the popcorn vendor in aisle 12. Then James scored 40 points in Game 4.
But . . . Stephenson is older and wiser and the guy who just put 25 points on the Knicks. He was so up to that moment, he said he had trouble sleeping the night before.
Suffice it to say he’ll be making no gestures toward James over the next fortnight.
Besides, it’s the Pacers coach whom James is annoyed with now, turning Frank Vogel’s Saturday night comment that the Heat are “just the next team in our way” into an insult. Well, whatever gets his blood pumping.
The Heat are the Heat. Invulnerable in most views.
But . . . the Pacers are young and hungry and sure they are more mature than the team that let Miami slip away last May.
“We’re going to learn from those mistakes,” Hibbert said. “We’re just figuring things out, and learning on the fly.”
Added West, “We were up 2-1 and we dropped the ball. Everything with this group is about growth, and about taking the next step.”
And the next stop is a whopper. “Things have been kind of building toward this,” West said. “We’re going to need everything from everybody.”
Even that might not be enough to stop the Heat. Should be enough to push them, though.