The Pacers may not win this series, may not bring the defending champs to their knees, may not silence the MVP, may not prevent the general public from getting the matchup they want to see most in the NBA Finals.
But they think they can.
These Pacers, surprisingly aggressive and defiant and poised in the final moments of tight playoff games, are the little engine that could. If they lose the next two games of the Eastern Conference finals, or fall in a Game 7, there will be real anguish and dejection in their locker room. Because they feel they belong in the Finals just as much as Miami, if not more.
Seriously: If not more.
The series is tied 2-2 because the Pacers were the better and smarter team when it counted Tuesday, in the last few tense minutes when they stared down LeBron James, who fouled out with 56 seconds left, and wore down Miami. Indiana closed out with a 16-6 run, with Roy Hibbert playing the heavy once again, getting a big assist from Lance Stephenson, and look out, it's a best-of-three now and the Pacers' chest is getting puffy.
"The whole team is excited to embrace the challenge," said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. "We're confident we can rise to the challenge."
The Pacers have beaten the Heat twice now in five days and four times this season. Remember, the Heat had won 46 of their last 49 games before the series began. Miami is 73-15 against the rest of the NBA this season, 3-4 against the Pacers. And just imagine, if Vogel had kept Hibbert in the game for the final 2.2 seconds when LeBron attacked the rim in Game 1 …
Hibbert is the difference in the series. Can we even say he's the MVP so far? Is that a stretch? Is that blasphemy against King James? Not really. Hibbert is averaging 22.8 points and 12 rebounds and perhaps his biggest moment came when he sat on that bench in that Game 1 loss. There was such an outcry about it that you instantly knew how far Hibbert has come and how much of an impact he's having. A year ago, keeping Hibbert on the bench would've been a smart move in any situation. That was back when he was still clumsy and often disoriented and surviving on a flat jump-hook shot and nothing more offensively. Now? It's basketball suicide.
His offensive rebound, layup and three-point play late in the fourth quarter Tuesday was the game changer, and Miami simply doesn't have anyone to contain him. Hibbert is commanding double teams and also crushing Miami on the boards; Indiana had a 49-30 advantage in Game 4. Miami must pay attention to Hibbert and Paul George equally as much. That's an advantage the Pacers really didn't count on before the series began.
And then in Game 4 came a bonus: Stephenson. He has a quirky type of style. He's a laser on the fast break and plays fearlessly on both ends. Sometimes that gets him into trouble and out of control; before Game 4, Stephenson shot only eight of 32. But Dwyane Wade couldn't keep up with him Tuesday. It really wasn't even close, actually. Stephenson is younger, healthier and just as determined. He doesn't back down from Wade or even LeBron, whom he had a hand in guarding.
"He asked to guard him," said Vogel. "He was our option when Paul wore down a bit."
And Hibbert said: "If he plays like that, we win."
Just like that?
"If he can bottle that up and use it every night, no one can beat us," Hibbert added.
Before the series began, Vogel caused a stir when he said Miami was just "the next team in our way" which was incorrectly relayed to LeBron as "just another team" in the Pacers' path. LeBron got bent out of shape, but let's be real about it, Vogel's swagger has caught on quickly in his locker room. The Pacers know they can play with Miami -- Hibbert actually said, "we're evenly matched" -- and if things fall their way on a pivotal play or two over the rest of the series, who knows?
"Not one guy in that locker room didn't believe we weren't going to win this game," said Hibbert. "We're relentless."
Well, Miami can be pretty relentless too, as the Heat showed in Game 3. And really, all season long. Eventually, you figure LeBron will find a way to recover, and Chris Bosh will shake off a bum knee and ankle, and the Heat will connect on shots that aren't falling right now. And if nothing else, home court advantage will rescue them if the series goes seven.
That said, the Pacers will be crushed if they lose the next two, and irritated if they're not playing the Spurs next Wednesday. They've come a long way since a year ago, when they lost to Miami in six games in the East semis and chalked it up as a learning experience.
They're the only team to muster a challenge this season to a Heat team that won 27 straight, 66 during the season and is the overwhelming favorite to represent the East in the Finals. Even if others might be skeptical, and even fewer believe the Pacers will get beyond the weekend, the Pacers are playing for keeps, and it shows.
"We know we've got to be great to beat this team," said Vogel.
And then the coach said:
"We're a great team."