It was easy to discern the Miami Heat’s superiority over the Indiana Pacers on the court throughout Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
In terms of tactics and talent, brains and brawn, the Heat deconstructed the team that Larry Bird and Frank Vogel built precisely with the aim of beating their nemesis in the playoffs.
So far the usurpation plan is a miserable failure in a series that was expected to be more dramatic. The Heat leads 3-1 with a chance to finish off the Pacers in Indianapolis on Wednesday. Miami is 13-3 in closeout games in the Big 3 era, and NBA teams possessing 3-1 advantages have won those playoff series 96 percent of the time.
What really crystallized the difference between the Heat’s championship-caliber character and the Pacers’ fading hopes of emulating it occurred after Monday’s 102-90 beatdown. One by one, Heat players gave their assessment and each seemed remarkably serene. The Pacers were, by turns, exasperated, cowed, sarcastic, defensive and accusatory.
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Of course, it’s much simpler to be a gracious winner, but what was striking about Heat players was their equanimity even after a rousing victory that put them within plucking distance of a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.
Dwyane Wade was Spock-like in his lack of emotion.
“We understand the moment,” he said. “We also understand that you have to get to four wins before you can move on. So we have to complete that task.”
Both Wade and LeBron James had been baited by Lance Stephenson as part of Stephenson’s guerilla warfare strategy of getting under an opponent’s skin, making him itch and squirm. He said he would put Wade under duress, maybe aggravate Wade’s creaky knees. He talked trash to James, and said James’ retorts in Game 3 were a “sign of weakness.”
“When I talk junk, it makes me happier to do my job,” Stephenson said. “I like the challenge. I like to bring the best out of people.”
That he did, as James scored 32 points, most often on fierce stampedes into the paint. Afterward, he refused to show glee, or rub it in as the Pacers bemoaned how Stephenson’s playground smack had backfired, provoking James into his finest performance of the series.
“I don’t need any motivation,” James said when asked about Stephenson’s lip. “I got a smirk out of it.”
Nor would the Heat get lured into a debate about the free-throw discrepancy that put the champs on the line 34 times to Indiana’s 17. David West, trying to avoid a fine in his second-guessing of the officials, smiled bitterly in the locker room when he supposed the Pacers “didn’t adjust to the new rules.”
Paul George sounded delusional when he said, “looking at the stat sheet, we outplayed them.” He blamed the loss on questionable calls.
“I feel like we’re just as aggressive as they are attacking the basket and making plays at the rim,” he said. “Maybe this was just home cooking.”
James chose a dispassionate response.
“We only had five turnovers, and seven steals and 20 points off their turnovers,” he said. “That has nothing to do with the free-throw line.”
Chris Bosh finally drew blood after three toothless games, scoring 25 and yanking the Heat out of another potential somnambulant first quarter. He could have lashed at critics who belittle him as a 6-11 shooting guard, the lesser cog of the Big 2 1/2.
But Bosh, speaking in his low and slow bass, sounding like a cross between John Thompson and James Earl Jones, is above snappy comebacks. Nor does he admit to any psychological swoon. Since collapsing in disappointment and exhaustion at the end of the 2011 Finals loss to Dallas, Bosh has been steadfast in his stoicism.
“No, no, no, no,” he said when asked if his slump was caused by self-doubt. “Mental crisis, that’s for the weak-minded, my friend.”
The Heat doesn’t play head games. They learned their lessons during Season One of the Big Tres, when James succumbed to the nation’s psychoanalysis — to the point of paralysis. They tasted bile whenever they left Miami, and it gave them gag-resistant constitutions.
Wade recalled how the Celtics, led by squawking Paul Pierce and scowling Kevin Garnett, used to beat the Heat “in the mental game as well as the physical game.”
“So I think from that point, we try to leave that alone,” he said. “We try to beat you at basketball. We don’t go into that back-and-forth talking because that’s not going to win us a game.”
The Pacers are going through the gantlet, within and without. They are the Heat of 2014, the team everyone loves to scorn. Poor Roy Hibbert disappeared again Monday, scoring zero points in 22 confused minutes, even with Chris Andersen on the bench. Stephenson was schooled by James. George, thought to be a superstar-in-the-making, has faltered in key moments, just as James did in 2011. They are being dominated by a smaller, older team.
“Tear up the Pacers and start over!” is the cry we’ll hear if they don’t put up a fight and conjure a miracle.
Heat players resist any sense of smugness. They haven’t won anything until they win another title. Besides, they have been where the Pacers have been. The byproduct of their trials is a calm, yearning confidence. They may not be as good as they were last year but they compensate with a mature belief in themselves and each other.
Pearls aren’t made without pain.