As the clock wound down on game five of the NBA Finals last night, Sunday, June 15, it was almost like looking at a mirror image of the Eastern Conference Finals. Except, this time, it was Lebron James viewing the game from the perspective of the Pacers, watching helpless from the bench in the final minutes of the game as his opponent put a final dagger in a series in which his team was thoroughly dominated.
To be an Indiana Pacers fan, and to watch the seemingly unbeatable Miami Heat get handled so easily by the San Antonio Spurs has to be a little frustrating. After all, it was the Pacers who were supposed to crush the Heat this year.
Or, at least, that what's the Pacers' players and coaches told us all year long.
But as the Spurs put the finishing touches on their 104-87 series-clinching win last night, it became all too clear that the Pacers are no Spurs, yet.
But that doesn't mean the Pacers can't get to that level.
To analyze how the Pacers can take that next step and reach the ranks of the elites, like the San Antonio Spurs, we first have to accept the fact that this core group of players currently on the Pacers' roster is what they're going to have for the next few years. The Pacers' front office spent too much money to get this current team together, the George Hill for now NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard trade is done, and there's no amazing free agents out there within the Pacers' budget.
In other words, for better or worse, this is our team for awhile.
But the good news is that the Pacers don't need a lot more talent to get over the hurdle that is the Miami Heat, they just need to realize that the hurdle is all in their head.
When you examine the Miami Heat of the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Heat of the NBA Finals what you see is two totally different teams. Against the Pacers, the Heat were confident at every turn in every game. They absorbed every blow by the Pacers, and shrugged off the antics of the Pacers like a big brother does when their little brother is grabbing at their ankles.
The Spurs did the exact same to the Heat.
When the Heat jumped up to a 16-point lead early in last night's game, it had little-to-no effect on the Spurs' game plan. Whereas the Pacers would have folded like paper at an origami class, the Spurs took Lebron and company's hardest haymaker and just kept on playing. And when the Spurs finally took the lead late in the second quarter, any and all fight the Heat had left in them disappeared.
After that, the rout was on.
And that's what the Pacers will hopefully take away from this year's NBA Finals; that the Miami Heat put on their warmups one leg at a time, just like any other team in the NBA.
And that means it's time to retire the "Gold Swagger" motto as well. It's not needed anymore. The Pacers are a lot older, should be a lot wiser, and don't need any "swagger" to beat the Heat. That kind of false confidence is reserved for underdogs, like the Pacers in 2012, not championship contenders, like the 2014 Pacers.
The Spurs have absolutely zero "swagger" and it doesn't seem to be hurting them too much. What the Pacers need is less false bravado, or "swagger" as they like to brand it, and more of that Tony Dungy Quiet Strength that championship teams seem to always have.
In other words, it's time for the Pacers to realize that when you pump your egos up to the size of a balloon that some small child is trying to get as big as it can get, then all it takes is a simple pin prick to burst it.
It's time for the Pacers to stop looking at the Miami Heat as the "Miami Heat", the end-all-be-all of the NBA, and see them for what they are: competitors in the way of a trip to the NBA Finals.
And, yes, Paul George, that means it's also time for you to see yourself on the same level as Lebron James. Whether that is true or not, looking up to Lebron as a big brother is only going to hurt you and your team when it counts.
But the transition from "swagger" to confidence needs to apply to the front office too. When you examine where the Pacers seemed to deviate from title contenders to just another team trying to beat the Heat this season, the problems appeared to arise just after a series of trades that sent former All-Star Danny Granger packing and brought in busts Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum.
It's not the trades, per se, that were the problem, even though there were a number of rumors that Turner brought with him a series of attitude problems that caused a stir in the locker room, but more so in what message the front office sent with the trades.
I mean, to make a trade that early in the season, when the Pacers are on top of the world in the NBA, sends a message to your young players that you are not sure your team has what it takes to beat Miami.
And that message has to be deflating for a team, that on paper, seemed unbeatable in the first half of the season.
In essence, it's time for the Pacers to stop talking and start playing. The more the Pacers send out these cute little messages, like Larry Bird's message of hope to the fans on Saturday, the more it feels like the Pacers are trying to convince themselves they can beat the Heat. But the time for the underdog, "we want the Heat" mentality has come-and-gone. If the Pacers ever want to beat Miami, they need to stop seeing it as a probability, and start thinking of it as an inevitability.
And it's this getting away from the "hopeful" mindset that the Pacers should take away from this year's NBA Finals.
That it's time to stop thinking about beating Miami, and time for the Pacers to start thinking about how not to beat themselves.