Simmons on the Road: It’s All on LeBron

Greetings from Indiana, the home of Larry Legend, Jimmy Chitwood, St. Elmo’s, the Indy 500 and a relentlessly confusing Pacers team. Two years ago, Indianapolis hosted the Super Bowl and exceeded everyone’s expectations (including mine), handling the crush of people with ease while somehow maintaining a homey feel. I loved that entire week … you know, right until Brady overthrew a wide-open Welker by maybe 15 inches for the clinching touchdown, then the Patriots blew another Super Bowl to the freaking Giants. Aaaaaaaargh.

If only sports fans could swallow pills to erase specific plays from their brains like they were Eternal Sunshine characters. I will never stop seeing Welker line up for that play, with New York’s secondary in chaos as their D-backs scrambled to figure out their coverage. Inexplicably, they abandoned the entire left side of the field and left it that way. They should have just planted the Lombardi Trophy in the corner of the end zone with a sign that said, “WELKER — THIS IS YOURS.”

Welker noticed immediately. Brady noticed, too. Since it happened right in front of us, my buddy Jamie and I both noticed and started furiously elbowing each other. Every Giants fan in our section noticed and started shrieking in disbelief. For about five seconds there, we were going to avenge the Helmet Catch game. I can’t spend time in Indianapolis without drifting back to those five seconds, and the beauty of the day itself — how we kicked things off by driving to the Hoosiers gym (just two days after taping a podcast with Larry Legend), how the sun never stopped shining, how Indianapolis never stopped radiating good vibes. Everything was perfect. I still can’t believe we lost.

Twenty-seven months later, I can’t believe the Pacers have a chance to derail LeBron’s three-peat. When we were in New Orleans for All-Star Weekend, the Pacers had won 40 of 52 games and loomed as a legitimate contender. Their best five guys played better together than anyone else’s best five guys. Roy Hibbert had blossomed into this generation’s Dikembe. Paul George was filming commercials and getting “superstar” buzz. The immortal Lance Stephenson was everyone’s favorite All-Star snub. I remember running into Frank Vogel, whom I’ve known since his Boston days, and he couldn’t have seemed happier about everything. Loved his team, loved the landscape, loved their title chances, loved everything. He couldn’t stop smiling.

That’s what made the next few weeks so incomprehensible. We covered Indiana’s demise in painstaking detail on Grantland, as Vogel slowly became more intense than Michael Fassbender during the last 40 minutes of Shame, but nobody could answer the fundamental question: “WHAT HAPPENED???” During their embarrassing Round 1 series against the undermanned Hawks, I created a pie chart of blame: Pat Riley’s Disease of Me (30 percent); too many minutes for the worn-down starting five (20 percent); no incumbent superstar who could say “Don’t worry, I got this” (10 percent); Lance Stephenson being the one saying, “Don’t worry, I got this” (20 percent); and maybe-they-weren’t-that-good-to-begin-with (20 percent). Hibbert’s unexpected transformation into Hasheem Thabeet didn’t crack the pie chart. Neither did their broken chemistry, which I described as “they’re interacting like divorced parents who just ran into each other at their son’s youth soccer game.” Everything looked bad. Everything.

And you know what? They were ready to roll over in Atlanta, in Game 6, when they trailed by five with 3:15 remaining. You always have those playoff games when things look bleak, and everyone glances around and wonders, Who’s saving us right now? For Indiana, that guy isn’t Paul George — it’s David West. West drew a foul and made both free throws, stole the ball from Pero Antic on the next possession, then drained a 19-footer to pull them within one. They were fine after that. One round later, against a scary Washington team that’s probably still kicking itself for squandering that series, Indy blew a sizable Game 6 lead in the fourth quarter. West sank the crucial jumper to grab the lead back, then swished three other shots to ice the series.

Quick tangent: These last few years saw something of a sea change in NBA philosophies, driven by the advanced-metrics boom and an increasing number of new owners with hedge fund backgrounds. With a philosophical battle brewing between the old-school Eye Test guys and the new-wave numbers guys, it’s been funny (and a little ridiculous) to watch this turn into an either/or thing. Ideally, you should blend both worlds into one larger vision — that’s one of many reasons why San Antonio keeps thriving even with Duncan heading toward his 40th birthday. The Spurs value the new-wave thinking (for instance, they mastered corner 3s before just about everyone else) while also putting significant stock in personalities and chemistry. Gregg Popovich has done everything short of admitting publicly, I like having as many foreign guys as possible, they’re wired differently, they actually know how to play basketball, they didn’t just pop out of some AAU factory like the rest of these schmucks.

On the flip side, you have the 2014 Rockets, a team that made sense on paper and executed a vision that looked great on paper — one big guy, lots of shooters, lots of 3s — only they never solved their fundamental Eye Test issues. Can you really win a title when your best two players aren’t leaders? Can you really throw out chemistry and assume math will carry you for four rounds? The Rockets blew multiple close games against Portland for a variety of reasons, but mainly because they didn’t have anyone like West — the seen-it-all veteran who would have made those three or four we’re-screwed-if-someone-doesn’t-score-right-now jumpers, told Dwight to stop bitching, yelled “GET YOUR HEAD INTO THE SERIES, WE F—ING NEED YOU!” at James Harden, and grabbed Chandler Parsons’s jersey in the final second of Game 6 and said calmly, “If there’s a switch and you let Lillard get a wide-open 3, I’m beating you to death.”

There aren’t a lot of these guys left — reliable veterans who aren’t the team’s best player but carry inordinate sway and thrive when their team needs them most. Over the past 20 years, these guys ranged in all shapes and sizes. Hakeem’s Rockets had Sam Cassell and Mario Elie. Shaq’s Lakers had Brian Shaw, Rick Fox and Derek Fisher. The mid-2000s Pistons had Chauncey Billups. The 2008 Celts had Eddie House and James Posey. The 2011 Mavs had Jason Kidd and Jason Terry. These last two Miami teams had Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier. Other than West, what other non-superstar veterans currently fit that profile other than Paul Pierce? What in-their-prime guys could even sniff this conversation other than — maybe — Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry and Shaun Livingston? What younger guys could evolve into that role other than Reggie Jackson (an obvious candidate) and maybe Kemba Walker?

I don’t know what happened to those guys, or even what we should call them. Soul Providers? Heart Transplants? Scrotal Enhancers? Whatever name you create, just know that West is the best of the bunch right now. He saved Indiana’s season for two straight rounds. And so I thought Miami would finish them off in Round 3, but I overlooked three things …

1. The Pacers are an atrocious “Everyone Believes In Us!” team and an excellent “Nobody Believes In Us!” team.

You could see it in Game 1 — they clearly relish being underdogs again. Even their fans relish it. Multiple Pacers fans yelled at me during Game 1, still angry that I picked Washington over them. An entire section to the right of our TV set even chanted “Simmons Sucks!” for a few seconds before switching gears and showering former Pacer Jalen Rose with love. I thought it was fantastic even as I started to secretly worry about the hotel chef dropping pubes in my scrambled eggs the next time I ordered room service. The Pacers have fantastic fans; they SHOULD take this stuff personally.

But that’s the thing — these players and their fans are better off being angry, feeling like nobody believes in them, worrying about being the overlooked small market all over again and fretting that the other team’s superstar is always getting the calls. That’s their identity. That’s their DNA. Being the favorite, meeting a certain level of expectations, dealing with adversity, wearing that bull’s-eye all the time … maybe that’s not what they were meant to do. Can you imagine how these Pacers would have handled the V. Stiviano saga if Donald Sterling owned them (and not the Clippers)? Yikes. But none of that matters now. Nobody believes in them. They’re back to who they are.

2. I never realized until the pregame introductions how much these Indiana fans hate Miami.

This isn’t even good-natured “sports-hate,” a concept I tackled back in 2009 with Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant — you can sports-hate a player or team without genuinely hating them. I sports-hate Peyton’s guts, but I don’t actually hate him, if that makes sense. Well, Pacers fans actually HATE the Heat. You could feel the hostility brewing during the pregame intros — “BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” — and you could feel their collective animosity brewing every time a Miami player did something they didn’t like. When Mario Chalmers pushed C.J. Watson into the cameraman, they reacted like Little League parents who just watched the opposing coach shove a finger into their child’s chest. BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

And that’s a subtle but important difference between the first two rounds and Round 3 — you can’t work up that kind of enmity toward a 38-win Hawks team and the young upstart Wizards. You just can’t. Is that why Indiana went 3-4 at home in the first two rounds? Not entirely … but it certainly didn’t help. We know when the Pacers thrive: when they’re overachieving, when their fans are pushing them, when they can’t let themselves relax for even one second. All that prosperity handicapped them. It fundamentally changed who they were. It can’t be a coincidence that they played their most passionate basketball in three months on Sunday. Of course …

3. Coming off three straight years in the Finals, Miami is more vulnerable than ever.

That’s the real reason Indiana has a chance here — Miami whiffed on free agency with last offseason’s Oden-Beasley signings, leaving the Heat with an older, creakier version of last year’s championship team, which came within one rebound of losing in Game 6. You can’t look at a single Heat player and say, “That guy is better now than he was a year ago,” with the possible exception of Chris Andersen. Battier and Haslem look washed-up. Bosh morphed into a 3-point specialist who never posts up anymore. Ray Allen will give you two good games per series and that’s it. The Mario Chalmers–Norris Cole point guard combo is more unreliable than ever. Dwyane Wade isn’t a top-20 player anymore; if there was a startling revelation from Game 1, it’s that Lance Stephenson spent four quarters thinking to himself, I’m better than this guy … and he might not have been wrong.

So it’s LeBron and LeBron and LeBron and also LeBron, and more than ever, LeBron. There’s a decent chance that the Pacers regained their mojo — much like a TV show that gets derailed by a stupid subplot for a few months, then the writers fix things and you’re suddenly saying, “Wow, that was easy, this show is really good again! We’re back!” Or maybe they’re just comfortable playing against Miami thanks to all the reps over these past two seasons — eight regular-season games, eight playoff games — and a matchup that’s strangely favorable for them.

But yesterday’s game was eye-opening. We were reminded that Hibbert loves playing this team, that Miami doesn’t have anyone to defend West, that Paul George was created by scientists to defend LeBron (not stop him totally, but at least make him work), that Lance loves going at Wade, that George Hill can’t get exposed against that Chalmers-Cole combo. We were reminded that Bosh, for whatever reason, absolutely sucks against Indiana — we now have a 16-game sample size of Bosh averaging 11 and 4 against Hibbert and West (not a misprint). And we were reminded that, for Miami to advance, it’s going to take yet another superhuman effort from LeBron James. Maybe even a super-duperhuman effort. The Heat spent four years riding on LeBron, Wade, defense, Bosh and 3s, in that order … and right now, they can only count on LeBron from game to game. That’s pretty sobering.

Can the Pacers keep the momentum going? Who the hell knows? It’s the Pacers! It’s like trying to guess the results of a roulette wheel. They could score 54 points in Game 2 and I wouldn’t be shocked. But if they can keep coming relatively close to that unexpected Game 1 performance, and if they can keep getting passionately insane crowds from the league’s best arena, this could turn frightening pretty quickly for Miami. Is LeBron having 2010 Cavs flashbacks? Does he have enough reserve strength to fight through a seven-game war and prevail on the road? Is his own version of Jordan’s Game 6 in Utah looming, when he has to effectively defeat an opponent by himself or lose out on a three-peat?

I don’t have the answers. But when you’re in the home of the Basketball Jesus and Jimmy Chitwood and Bobby Knight and Bobby Plump and Norman Dale and Steve Alford and everyone else, with those fans going bonkers, and Larry Legend sitting there IN THE BUILDING? That’s when you don’t want to be an aging opponent looking for answers. Your move, LeBron.

Filed Under: NBA, NBA Playoffs

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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