For the better part of the Eastern Conference finals, or at least the most important and pivotal games of the series, Heat reserve point guard Norris Cole either shut down completely or significantly limited Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson.
What exactly was going through Stephenson’s mind in the second quarter of Game 6 on Friday when he cold-cocked Cole is anyone’s guess, but a series worth of built-up frustrations seemed to manifest itself in a cheap shot that sent Cole to the floor. Cole fell hard and smacked his face against the hardwood. When he picked himself up off the court, his nose was bleeding and he needed help steadying his legs.
Cole received only a few more minutes of playing time after the shot to his head. In other words, Stephenson knocked Cole out of the game.
And into the NBA Finals.
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There are two types of pain this time of year for basketball players. There is emotional pain, and then there is physical pain. The defending back-to-back champions know both as they make their fourth consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals. Both can motivate.
The team was forged by pain after the 2011 Finals collapse to the Dallas Mavericks, and that fire-hardened steel has reinforced LeBron James in the postseason ever since.
In Game 6, there was physical pain on the face of Cole, the Heat’s youngest player, an Ohioan like James and a player renowned for his professionalism and work ethic. Cole went down, and the Heat went off.
“If it was C.J. Watson hitting Norris, we’d have said he went for the ball,” James said. “The fact that it was Lance, we can say he went for his face — so wrong place at the wrong time, or at the right time for Lance, in his case.”
Of course, the Pacers know pain, too, and it’s not really fair to completely sanctify the Heat as some kind of champion of sportsmanship. It was Stephenson on the receiving end of a cheap shot in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals when Heat-center-turned-goon Dexter Pittman leveled the Pacers’ guard with an elbow to the throat.
But the victors write history, and now the Heat is four victories away from being counted among the NBA’s greatest teams. Only three franchises have reached four consecutive NBA Finals, and there is no question that those great Celtics and Lakers squads didn’t stamp out their places in history by ruthlessly trampling the Lance Stephensons of old.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra could feel the emotions oozing from his team the day before Friday’s game.
“I know we had a very angry group [Thursday] when we met for practice,” Spoelstra said.
Anger, of course, is awaiting the Heat in the NBA Finals. Whether it was to be the Thunder or Spurs — and it turned out it will be San Antonio in a rematch of last year’s Finals — both teams had been denied championships by the Heat in the past two seasons.
“Whoever we meet in the next round, it’s going to be a big challenge,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “Obviously, we beat them in the Finals. Whether it’s San Antonio from last year feeling they had us, whether it’s a young OKC team we beat two years ago, they’re going to feel more prepared for this moment.
“It’s going to have its own challenges.”
The Heat didn’t allow for much nostalgia after the Game 6 victory against the Pacers, but Wade did say that, looking back, he and his teammates “were still kids” when they won their first Eastern Conference championship of this current run. That puts things in perspective.
“It seemed like a long time ago,” Wade said of the Heat’s league championship against the Bulls in 2011. “We were still kids, it seemed like, and now just being more prepared for this moment … seizing a moment like [Friday night] … .
“Not for a moment, I don’t think inside none of us, that we felt we were going to lose this ballgame. We knew we were going to impose our will. We didn’t know the outcome, but we knew we were going to impose our will here at home.”
The Heat has been winning for a long time now. So long, in fact, that Cole, the player who inspired the Heat with his injury Friday, has only ever known what it feels like to be a champion at the professional level. He has been in the league three seasons. He’s a two-time champion, and once again on his way to the Finals.
Cole took one to the chin in the second quarter. It was a hard shot and one that enraged his teammates. Then Cole did what this Heat team has always done. He got up, shook away the blow and made both of his free throws.
“That’s how you make them pay,” Cole said.