One thing I’ve learned about athletes after nearly a quarter century in this business is that they’ll rally around anything. They tell you otherwise, but they have long memories. They retain every slight from every player who ever dissed them and every person who ever doubted them.
Fans often think money is their primary motivator, but that’s only part of the equation. They’re motivated more by pain that comes with failure than joy that comes with success. Teams are driven by the imaginary idea that everyone else is against them. They’re pushed by insecurity and fear.
And when it comes together, when there’s a common thread that’s pushing them and scaring them and sharpening their focus, when chemistry evolves into unity and collective confidence, that’s when a good team has the potential to become a championship team. That much is true in any sport.
It’s something to keep in mind when watching the Pacers and Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Indiana was a mess for the better part of two months but survived the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs. They could have been knocked out long before their talent carried them into the conference finals.
The Pacers have finally rediscovered what had pushed them all season, what had been missing in the first month of the playoffs. It was the Heat. They were tired of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. They were offended when Chris Bosh trivialized their matchups while polishing off his championships rings.
Indiana had been talking about winning a championship all season, but really their primary goal was beating Miami. The Pacers knew they couldn’t win the former without going through the other. Miami was a bully in a weak conference, a team destined for the NBA’s final four.
It was the reason Indiana was obsessed with grabbing home-court advantage, which evaded the Pacers a year ago. They earned it with the best record in the conference. The standings may have suggested they were the top team in the East, but the reality was they were underdogs when playing Miami.
Suddenly, the same Pacers team that had fallen apart before our eyes a few weeks ago rolled over the Heat in Game One. Indiana was in control from the start, looking more like a 56-win power than the one that needed seven games to beat an Atlanta team that finished six games under .500.
Paul George, a reluctant leader during times of tumult early in the postseason, made sure his teammates were involved early. He had five assists in the first quarter and helped open up the inside game with two three-pointers in the first 6½ minutes. George Hill had 11 points in the first quarter.
Roy Hibbert, a bumbling train wreck for two rounds, reaffirmed his place in the paint and exposed Bosh as a weaker, softer opponent. It was as if the Pacers were a different team against the Heat. Actually, it was the Heat that drew Indiana into playing the style that made the Pacers a contender in the first place.
James and Wade did their part, but they alone cannot carry Miami into the finals. It’s not a good sign for Miami when Chris Andersen was one of their better players in Game One. Bosh was invisible. Indiana had six players score in double figures, including Hibbert with 19 points.
Miami has a real problem in the post. Hibbert has awakened. The Heat doesn’t have a big man who can handle him and David West. They underestimated the loss of Mike Miller, who took his tough inside defense and three-point shot to Memphis. Andersen isn’t athletic enough. Bosh isn’t tough enough.
The Pacers shouldn’t get too excited after winning a series opener at home for the first time in three tries this postseason.
Since James’ arrival, Miami twice lost openers on the road before winning four straight. One was against inferior Chicago in 2011, the other a year later against an Oklahoma City team still finding its way.
Indiana lost its way this year before Miami inadvertently gave the Pacers something to rally around: each other.
The Pacers made 35 field goals off 23 assists in Game One, which spoke to unselfishness that had become their identity before their inexplicable derailment.
The Pacers were near flawless in the series opener. They were better on the boards, much better defensively, played harder and believed in one another for the first time in weeks.
That was the Pacers of the regular season, when they appeared mature enough and tested enough and to finally push through their nemesis.
The Pacers know the Heat are vulnerable, but they still need to beat Miami three more times. They held serve at home, where they were 35-6 during the regular season. If they need motivation, they can tap into recent losses and doubts and insults and the fear that came from failure.
Why did the Pacers have so many problems? They’re not even sure. Maybe they were bored early in the playoffs, knowing their talent was enough.
Maybe they were full of themselves. Maybe they looked past the Hawks and Wizards. But they lost their edge. Now, the Heat has their undivided attention.
And that’s when a team becomes dangerous. Now that the Heat is on them, the Pacers are playing with the fire that had been missing.