What happened in the buildup to this Heat-Pacers Eastern Conference final is something you would find at the intersection of Funny and Sad.
Indiana coach Frank Vogel made a comment about playing Miami that was very benign and coach-like: “They’re the next team that’s in our way, and that’s how we’re approaching it.”
Except that Heat superstar LeBron James — in the fashion of Michael Jordan, who always led the league in taking umbrage and seeing imaginary slights to fuel himself — chose to interpret Vogel’s remarks as disrespect.
“We’re not just another team” responded James, as if Vogel has said exactly that. “I don’t understand what he’s saying. We’re a great team. We’re a very confident team.”
Immediately the exchange had formed the framework of this series. It was called a “War of the Words” in a Miami Herald headline and dissected ad nauseum on ESPN.
The blooming of one comment and one reaction into something controversial was halfway between funny and sad because this is where we’re at now in this Heat postseason run toward a second consecutive NBA championship.
We are so desperate for some dramatic tension, for a challenge to the dominant Heat, that we will see drama where it doesn’t exist if necessary. Hey, it beats boredom!
Admit it. Ease and tranquility are overrated. Difficulty and messy are more fun.
The first season of Miami’s Big 3 era was so exhilarating, so memorable, partly because it was so damned fascinating playing the role of national villain. To hear that booing and feel that hatred in arenas all over the country, especially toward LeBron, cast the Heat as the most interesting, talked-about team in America.
And it recast this franchise, literally overnight (the night LeBron made “The Decision”).
“Miami was never considered a big-market team until we put these guys on the team,” as Heat coach Erik Spoelstra noted Monday. “If you build it, they will come. …”
Year 2 of the Big 3 had its own innate chaos thanks to the first season falling short of a championship. The outward venom directed at the Heat subsided noticeably, but this remained a team under intense pressure to live up to its advertising and its own expectations — and that living up was in serious doubt until the moment it wasn’t.
Last year’s postseason was a genuine thrill ride, with Miami trailing these same Pacers 2-1 with Game 4 in Indiana in the second round. Then facing two elimination games in the Eastern finals vs. Boston. Then losing the NBA Finals opener at Oklahoma City.
“Last year was about survival,” Spoelstra said of the 2012 postseason.
One season later in the playoffs, Year 3 of the Big 3 is about dominance, about a reigning champion flexing its muscle.
A year ago today, Miami had not yet won enough to deserve James calling his a “great team.” Now that he believes it, that is why he took it as disrespect that Vogel would suggest (at least to him) that Miami was just another opponent in the way of the Pacers’ own title run.
(Perhaps LeBron took it as unearned confidence in part because the Pacers haven’t won anything since reigning in the old ABA in the short-shorts year 1973.)
The little Vogel-James media rift found fertile ground because Year 3 of the Big 3 has had neither the hatred that enveloped the first season nor the doubts that chased the second.
Things have been too darned smooth!
The first playoff round was a 4 games to 0 waltz-sweep of unqualified Milwaukee, which was so mediocre we couldn’t even fake any dramatic tension. So we settled hungrily upon Brandon Jennings bravely predicting his Bucks would win in six games.
The second round brought a Chicago squad so depleted by injury that it almost wasn’t fair. The rough play in the technical fouls-littered series lent the illusion of drama, of competition, but the bottom line — Miami 4 games to 1 — suggested otherwise.
Now comes Indiana, opponent No. 3 on Miami’s Upper-Midwest Annihilation Tour as the Heat sweeps across the region.
The easy contention is that after the breeze past the Bucks and Bulls, “the playoffs start now!”
But do we believe it?
Does anybody outside of Indianapolis really believe it?
Miami is a 2-to-15 favorite to beat Indiana, with betting odds, of course, a reality through the prism of public perception. That makes the Heat a landslide favorite and the Pacers an enormous underdog. Miami winning the series in four, five, six or seven games all are better odds than the Pacers winning the series in any number of games.
Fourteen ESPN experts predicted the series. Fourteen picked Miami.
Trot out all the “yeah, buts” you want.
Yeah, but Indiana was 2-1 against Miami during the regular season.
Yeah, but Indiana is much healthier and even better defensively than the Bulls.
Yeah, but Indiana rebounds very well, at times a Heat weakness.
Yeah, but the Pacers’ Paul George seems to defend LeBron pretty well.
Yeah, but Roy Hibbert gives Indiana a true center presence.
All true … yeah, but none of them matter much.
Remember that Miami closed out Indiana with three consecutive victories in last year’s playoffs despite missing injured Chris Bosh.
Remember that Miami is better, right now, than the team that raised the championship trophy last June.
Remember that Miami has won 45 of its past 48 games … and now this team is supposed to lose four of its next seven?
LeBron was right. This is a “great team.”
We’re all looking for drama.
Settle for dominance.
Heat in five.