In My Opinion

Greg Cote: Pacers, Lance Stephenson extinguished by Heat

 

gcote@ MiamiHerald.com

This was what the full force of a two-time defending NBA champion looks like. This was the Miami Heat when it is challenged, and motivated, and disrespected, and rightfully angry.

And now this is the Indiana Pacers and dirty Lance Stephenson, slinking back to a fan base that should be ashamed by what they have just seen from their team and from the punk who volunteered himself as the ugly face of it.

I don’t mean ashamed because the Pacers lost this Eastern Conference Finals series to Miami 4-2. I don’t even mean because they lost Friday night’s crucial Game 6 here in a 117-92 blowout.

I mean ashamed by the outrageously clownish, unsportsmanlike antics of a player and a frustrated team that has now been eliminated from the postseason by Miami for a third consecutive season.

What a contrast on display Friday in the downtown bayside arena, which rocked as loudly as we have heard it and booed Stephenson with rabid decibels, in a game that simmered on the edge of a boil.

The composed, professional Heat, in search of a three-peat championship, was advancing as expected to the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive season — the first team to do that since Boston in 1984-87.

And Stephenson, on the other side, was relegated to being an embarrassment to Pacers president Larry Bird, to the basketball-proud state of Indiana, and to the NBA.

Now the Heat await San Antonio or Oklahoma City for a shot at a third title in a row, while Indiana measures its shortcomings.

“It’s bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row, but we are playing the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “They played at a championship level. They have a way to raise it to a point it’s too much to overcome.”

Miami collected the Eastern Conference championship trophy Friday night. Greater hardware is expected.

“We won’t take this opportunity for granted,” LeBron James said. “We still have work to do.”

Miami won this game with a tour de force performance that featured 50 combined points by James and Chris Bosh in three quarters’ work, on combined 18-for-26 shooting. It won it with maniacally intense defense. It won it with 13 points apiece from Dwyane Wade and Rashard Lewis. It won it with a major return from injury by Chris “Birdman” Andersen, who had nine points and 10 rebounds.

James’ early aggression set the tone, just one game after he had had the worst playoff game of his storied NBA career, a 7-point game on 2-for-10 shooting on a night when his minutes were limited severely by foul trouble.

Now the Heat turns sights to the Finals, but that anticipation can wait. I doubt anything gave James and Heat players more immediate pleasure as Friday’s rout wound down than finally shutting up an ultimately helpless Stephenson in the manner they did.

At 82-48 the TV cameras caught even stoic Heat president Pat Riley with a small smile. The lead at one point swelled to 37 before reserves came in late.

Michael Beasley, who was inactive, had been crooning an old Commodores song in the pregame lockerroom: “Easy like Sunday morning …”

Who would have believed the game would be easy like Friday night?

“It was just one of those games we always wanted to play from beginning to end,” Bosh said. “We wanted to make a statement.”

This was a complete beatdown, and the hub of the motivation for that was the Pacers player who grand-marshaled Indiana’s clown parade.

They are the Pacers against everybody else. Against Miami, call them the Indiana Pesters.

Stephenson, the punk who once directed a choke-sign at LeBron, this time said he saw signs of “weakness” in James, creepily blew softly into his ear, launching a million Internet memes and drawing an admonishment from Bird, who told him, “Don’t do that again.”

“That’s not really who we are,” Vogel said.

Well, but apparently it is, though.

An eavesdropping Stephenson also infiltrated a Heat huddle during a timeout, and drew a $10,000 league fine for a second “flopping” violation. (Dr. Stephenson had begun this series by speculating Dwyane Wade’s knee still wasn’t right).

“Buffoonery,” Miami’s Ray Allen rightly characterized the unprofessional antics.

But Stephenson wasn’t done Friday, despite Bird’s admonishment.

In the first quarter, he straddled a fallen James, delaying his getting up. Moments later the two exchanged heated words and drew a quick crowd of teammates after Stephenson placed his open palm over James’ mouth.

“I have no idea how I restrained. I guess I just understand what the bigger picture is,” James said of that. “It was uncalled for, for sure. I let him know how I felt.”

Stephenson in the second quarter was called for a foul for pinching James on his side. Then he wandered into another Heat huddle and was shooed away by a referee. Then Stephenson, branching out beyond irritating James, swiped an open palm across Norris Cole’s face, eliciting booing so guttural and loud it almost raised the roof. It was a flagrant foul; it might well have been an ejection.

“Unnecessary. Excessive,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called it.

Said James: “If it was somebody else, you could think it was an accident. The fact that it was Lance that hit Norris, we can say he went for his face.”

Stephenson’s egregiously dirty streetball gives one the impression that if his skills hadn’t put him in NBA clothes, his uniform by now might be an orange jumpsuit, county-issue.

His sustained annoyance got to the point that Heat enforcer Udonis Haslem, fed up, at one point during a timeout was overheard telling Stephenson, “I’m going to f--- you up.”

(I have little doubt Heat fans would have taken up a collection to pay Haslem’s fine).

Vogel admitted Stephenson’s outlandish may have backfired.

“I don think it ever good to tug on Superman’s cape,” he said.

The thing is, it wasn’t just Stephenson who lost composure for Indiana in this series.

Paul George after a Game 4 loss blamed the officiating to the tune of a $25,000 league fine, “running from accountability,” in the words of Stan Van Gundy.

Roy Hibbert complained about his team’s coaching and strategy, and also drew a flopping fine.

Vogel himself at least twice in the series gestured and screamed at Heat players as they attempted three-point shots in an effort to distract them — a stunningly juvenile breach of basic sportsmanship. By a head coach!

But don’t let Indiana’s various spasms of poor sportsmanship distract from what the Heat has just accomplished.

As Spoelstra said when asked about Stephenson’s behavior: “To even make a comment, you’re highlighting him. We’re playing for something much bigger than that guy.”

Miami has now won 11 consecutive home playoff games overall, and seven home games in a row vs. Indiana. The Heat also is now 10-0 in the Big 3 era at home in potential series-clinching games.

Vogel earlier this week had referred to his team as the “little brother” tired of always losing to the big-brother Heat. Well, big bro just eliminated little bro from the playoffs for a third year in a row.

Indiana fought all season for the expressed purpose of the No.1 conference seed and a Game 7 at home in this series. Miami wouldn’t let it get to that.

Bosh called Friday night “our Game 7,” and the Heat played like it.

Indiana felt the same imperative. The Pacers’ George had said, “Game 6 is going to be about performing like champions.”

He was right.

It was about that.

And only one team Friday performed like that, both in the game and in its composure.

It wasn’t the wanna-be’s who performed like champions.

It was the champions who did.

Read more Greg Cote stories from the Miami Herald

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