Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel should issue a digital copy of Game 7 to his players and require them to watch it a time or two or 12 this offseason.
He might want to label it “Coming up small on the big stage.”
The Pacers can learn from their 99-76 loss to the Miami Heat in the final game of the NBA Eastern Conference finals on Monday in Miami. It's going to be painful, but the lesson could turn the big moment their way next time.
One team came prepared for the enormity of Game 7. One team came in knowing the necessity of intensity. (Feel free, sports teams, to use “Necessity of intensity” on your t-shirts. No charge.) One team, as Vogel put it, was able to “ratchet up” its defense and impose its will.
I suppose you could say only one team had LeBron James, and that was no small factor as the Heat clinched a spot vs. the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals.
But the Pacers were not up for the level Game 7 required, not even close, especially after Dwyane Wade started attacking and Ray Allen remembered how to shoot.
Pacers center Roy Hibbert didn't have the same energy, the same purposefulness, he had in Game 6. Maybe his boorish behavior in the Game 6 postgame, and $75,000 fine and public criticism that followed, took some edge off his play. He finished with 18 points and eight rebounds, most after the Heat rout was on.
Pacers forward Paul George spent much of the series vying with James, pushing the storyline of the up-and-coming prince challenging the king's throne. On Monday, George was just another player with a couple stats (seven points) here and there. David West and George Hill both shot too much and missed too many. The Pacers never found their rhythm.
“They taught us a lesson,” Vogel said. “This team has been there before.”
I'll give the Pacers a pass on one thing: No team can match James and Wade when both are playing well. James finished with 32 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Wade scored 21 points with nine boards in a performance surprisingly close to vintage Wade.
Wade demonstrated what the Pacers couldn't find: An unrelenting will to win.
The Heat played defense better than they had the whole series. They outrebounded the Pacers, and grabbed a Pacers-like 15 offensive boards. The Heat brought urgency that they didn't always seem to have during the series, especially in road losses in Games 4 and 6.
I wrote Monday that the Pacers could not win on a technical knockout. They'd have to knock the champs out cold. It turned the other way. The Heat put the Pacers on the canvas in the third quarter. Vogel all but waved the white flag by putting Gerald Green on the court for the fourth.
The most disappointing aspect of the Pacers' performance was how it seemed the opposite of how they had played throughout the series. They were the team-oriented aggressor in the first six games, other than Game 3 when the Heat put 70 first-half points on the board.
Some Pacers fans seemed quick, at least on Twitter, to embrace the “great next step” narrative for the Pacers' season.
It's true. They took a step, advancing further in the playoffs than a year ago. But they had a chance to win this series. I thought Game 7 could be a toss-up as long as the Pacers played well. Instead, they came up small.
“Everything that happened in the first six games didn't mean anything to us,” Wade said in a postgame TV interview. “It was all about Game 7 and finding a way to win at home.”
The flat, unfocused Pacers play in Game 7 was a bitter way to exit this season. Late in the game, Hill ran into a surprise double-team after a change of possession. He called timeout. He looked lost. That was fairly representative of the Pacers' performance as a whole.
So now they go to the offseason to figure out the next step. They'll get Danny Granger back next season and have to find a way to incorporate him back into the flow. They have to decide what to do with West, who was out of sorts in Game 7. Do they work to bring him back? They have to address Lance Stephenson, and the possibility signing him to a long-term deal. They need another piece or two off the bench.
Most of all, the Pacers need to remember how they played in Game 7. They were passive. They were overwhelmed. The toughest critic might say they were soft.
Vogel needs to issue a video and make it required watching. They'll find out they were watching the Heat go by them all game long. That can't happen again if they ever hope to pass them by.