Two months ago, it was a different world. The Heat were fresh off a 27-game winning streak and generating talk of a clean sweep through the playoffs. The Pacers were overtaken by the Knicks for second-best record in the East and were just days away from dropping a pair of playoff games to the, ugh, Hawks.
And now, look what we have here. The world has gone crazy. Miami is reeling, bleeding badly from injuries and stretched to the limit in the Eastern Conference finals and raising doubts about the Big Three ever being the same again. The Pacers are sticking their chins and chests in the air and fully confident they can pull off a series win because Roy Hibbert, of all people, is looking like Olajuwon (when he's not acting like a child). What the hell just happened when we weren't looking?
"We've turned the corner as a basketball team," said Paul George.
Do you realize the Pacers are one win away from lighting a match to the Heat and watching their foundation begin to burn? Wouldn't a Pacers victory in Game 7 jump-start all the LeBron-James-back-to-Cleveland speculation in, what, about five minutes after the buzzer? With Dwyane Wade a health risk and Chris Bosh doing nothing to kill his image of being less than tough, wouldn't a Miami failure to at least reach the NBA Finals be considered … a failure?
"Our confidence is up," said Wade. "Everyone individually wants to play better and we want to play better as a team."
While losing the East would have deep implications for the Heat and their future, with free agency looming for LeBron next summer, there would be the notion of a changing of the guard, that the Pacers are about to inherit the Earth in the East. But that could be a stretch.
Are the Pacers capable of being a contender for the immediate future? Yes, of course. Will they own the East? That's unlikely, for a number of reasons.
1) Indiana must prove that this series against the Heat has a much deeper meaning than just a young team taking advantage of an injured one.
Funny how perception works. Was anyone talking glowingly about the Pacers in the first round, when they were being outplayed by the Hawks? That series was tied 2-2 and the best big man on the floor was Al Horford, not Hibbert. Maybe the Pacers are just a tough matchup for Miami; after all, Indiana won the regular season series 2-1 and had a 2-1 lead last season in the East semifinals. And again, Wade isn't himself -- his scoring average is almost seven points lower than his regular season average. And Bosh isn't taking the ball to the rim, partly because of a bum ankle (and also because he's suffering from Hibbert-itis).
2) Indiana has a big decision this summer regarding David West, a free agent.
West is having a terrific series against Miami and is simply too tough to handle down low, where Miami is weakest. In a sense, he has the perfect opportunity to play up his value, especially if the Pacers advance to the NBA Finals.
West will be 33 before next season begins and will look for one last payday. He's making $10 million this year and might get some interest on the open market. The Pacers obviously value him, and there's nobody on the roster who can fill his shoes at power forward. But paying him might be more than a small-market team can afford.
The Pacers are on the hook for $48 million next season, but in another year they must give George max-like money and also pay Lance Stephenson. If West's salary remains the same, they'll be flirting with a $70 million-plus payroll by 2014, and that's without fortifying the bench, the weakest part of the club.
3) Hibbert and Stephenson must continue to improve.
Hibbert's offense is only now coming around; back in February he was clumsy and unsure of himself with the ball. Because there isn't much competition among big men in the East, Hibbert should be an All-Star almost every season. Stephenson has a motor and an edge the Pacers like, but often plays out of control and makes horrible decisions. Plus, there's no telling what money will do to a player with a checkered background.
4) Indiana might not be the best team in its own division next year, let alone the conference.
Derrick Rose, remember him? He might even suit up next season. The Bulls will be pretty good when he does.
The Pacers will also likely lose Brian Shaw, the top assistant to Frank Vogel who helped nurture George and Stephenson and is in line for at least two jobs. And while he's tied up long-term and is a fan favorite, George Hill isn't among the top point guards in basketball. He might even be better playing off the ball.
Anyway, Game 7 isn't about Indiana, not really. It's about the Heat and where they are right now and where they're headed. Only Wade is almost guaranteed not to opt-out next summer; with his injury history, he'd be a fool to walk away from over $40 million guaranteed. Bosh would also turn down the kind of loot he won't see elsewhere should he opt-out, but he might want to play on a team where he can be the focal point once again, like he had in Toronto. Even if Bosh and Wade stay in Miami, they might not be enough for LeBron.
LeBron's free agency, once again, will put the league on alert. And it's all because a so-called dynasty could begin to crumble with another bad performance against the Pacers.
"We hate being in this position," LeBron said, "but it's an opportunity and we look forward to it Monday. "Every year there are 30 teams that would love to be a part of this, to have one game to advance to the NBA Finals. We should all cherish this moment."
And if they lose "this moment?" What then?
Do we even have to ask?