INDIANAPOLIS – There are as few superlatives left unused to describe Dwyane Wade as there are Indiana Pacers who can defend him. That is to say none.
You knew this was Wade's night, and the Pacers' playoff swan song, when he banked a shot off the ceiling of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and it came down, glanced off the backboard and went in. I exaggerate, barely.
The Pacers woke up Wade and LeBron James this series, reminded them that they'll actually have to win a championship, not wait for a coronation. I'm not sure if the rest of the NBA will appreciate that.
The Pacers hit the Heat hard, figuratively and sometimes literally and shook them out of the fog they encountered after Chris Bosh was injured in Game 1. The Heat won the Eastern Conference semifinal series 4-2 with a 105-93 win on Thursday. If they go on to win a title, they'll have the Pacers to thank.
“When Wade and James are going like they were tonight, they'll be tough to beat for anybody,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said.
Maybe it was Wade's knee that put him in a funk earlier this series. Maybe it was the shock of the Pacers fighting rather than genuflecting. “I had a bad game,” he said. Whatever it was, he snapped out of it after a trip to talk with his former coach, Indiana's Tom Crean, in a way that ranks with his best play of his career.
The wild part is James pretty much matched him.
They finished off their two-on-five conquering of the Pacers in Game 6 with Wade scoring 41 points with 10 rebounds and three assists and James scoring 28 points with six rebounds and seven assists.
The Heat move on to the play the winner of Celtics-76ers. So they'll get either an old team with attitude or a young team with spirit. Neither series will be easy, but the Heat learned from the Pacers series that nothing will come easy.
The difference now is that Wade and James will be rested, as well as tested, and Bosh could be back as early as Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. So the Heat that was favored to win the NBA title may be back to form sooner rather than later.
As necessary as Bosh looked after the Pacers won Games 2 and 3, he now seems like a luxury for the two superstars running this attack.
“Chris Bosh is an awesome basketball player, but when he goes down that means more touches for LeBron and Wade,” Vogel said. “That's not exactly an advantage. Give credit to those guys. They were spectacular this series and too much for us.”
Even Wade and James, who understand their special gifts as players better than most, seemed in awe of what they've done the last three games. In taking three straight from the Pacers, Wade scored 99 points with 22 rebounds and 11 assists. James scored 98 with 34 rebounds and 24 assists.
“We gave them a little wake-up call,” Vogel said. “Since Game 3, these guys have played at such a high level I don't know if anybody can beat them.”
Wade and James fed off each other, fed off the increasingly talkative, physical confrontation with the Pacers and responded the way superstars are expected to respond.
“We hope there's more,” Wade said. “We have a lot of basketball left. But when you talk about three games and two guys being dominate at the same time, that's probably the most we've been when you talk about playoffs.”
The series showed what the Heat possess – the two best players in the game. It also showed what the Pacers possess – a young team with flaws and in need of a superstar.
Imagine what Pacers center Roy Hibbert and power forward David West (24 points) could do with a scorer like Wade operating outside. Or imagine having a playmaker like James who can score seemingly at will, but also is willing to kick the ball out to Mario Chalmers for a three, as he did at the end of the third quarter.
Danny Granger (15 points on a sore ankle) would be a great No.2 offensive option, or even No.3 behind Hibbert. The lack of that go-to superstar will keep the Pacers from the elite if they don't find one.
The good news for Pacers fans is that there's no sign that the building of this team is done or that what you see is what you'll get in the future.
“This is a work in progress,” Vogel said, adding that the series loss after holding a 2-1 lead is part of the growing pains of assembling a contender. It's up to team president Larry Bird, not Vogel, to make the necessary next deals to bolster the roster, but Vogel certainly hinted that the roster is far from set in stone.
They failed to hang with the Heat in Game 6 due to too many turnovers (20 to the Heat's nine) and the understandable inability to slow Wade or James. The problem with defending Wade is that even when you stop him, as Hibbert appeared to on one drive, he can change directions in air and slide under for a flipped-in layup.
Indiana fans booed Wade and James, called them “floppers” in a recurring chant and expressed outrage over the times when they drew fouls that seemed like barely touched, if that. But their incredible skills and breathtaking plays were something the Pacers could not match.
The Heat added just enough from other sources (gimpy Mike Miller's four three-pointers, Chalmers' 15 points) to keep the Pacers off balance.
In the end, all the Pacers could do was look up and watch Wade and James soar. It just might have been three games that Wade and James will never match again. Coming close to that level might be good enough from here.