Last year I was bantering with resident "Smartest Guy in the Room" Pacers writer Tim Donahue of 8 Points, 9 Seconds about David West. Specifically, we were discussing the deep philosophical ramifications of this highly incriminating video:
The video, shot in April of last year, features the Pacers' pre-game warmups. In case you can't make out the Sega Genesis-level low-def quality of video, that's Pacers power forward David West throwing a one-two combo followed by an uppercut against Moondog the mascot (Moondog had to go to the hospital to get treated for an eye injury after his playtime with West). I suggested to Tim that even if West was pulling those punches, that visible technique wasn't some novice-level messing around. West knew what he was doing. Donahue responded by confirming that yes, West trains in the boxing ring during the off-season.
So as a matter of record, the Pacers front line features an amateur boxer and an amateur MMA fighter. Is it any wonder why they are not cowed by this Eastern Conference Finals fight?
Fighting technique aside, the biggest reason why the Pacers are in a position to shock the world (and complete the 2nd half of a league-wide upset by ending the 2nd of last year's 2 finalists) is because Indy did not panic after falling apart in the 3rd quarter of Game 5. It would have been an easy and understandable thing to do, especially after watching LeBron decimate the Pacers in the 3rd quarter all by himself. If Indy couldn't contend with one guy, no matter how great, what chance did they have, really?
On top of things, David West reportedly came down with a respiratory infection prior to Game 6 and played like it through the first half. The Pacers, despite out-rebounding the Heat once again and dominating inside, were seemingly without their team leader in West, the Heat had a lead, LeBron was warming up, and it appeared as if the Heat 3-point shooters had finally found their range. Lo and behold, the 3rd quarter was looming, the place of the James crime scene in Game 5.
This quarter in Game 6 is where the Pacers truly showed their new quality. Instead of wilting, the Pacers grew stronger. West rediscovered his fighter's mentality, found his shooting touch, and muscled his way to 11 points and 14 rebounds, 4 assists, a steal, and 2 blocks despite a 103 degree temperature. It's tough to ever compete with Michael Jordan's infamous "flu game," but West did the memory proud. Despite his committing 3 costly errors at the end of the 3rd - a shooting foul on James, followed by a turnover, followed by another shooting foul on James in the span of 11 seconds, neither he nor the Pacers lost their nerve.
The moment of truth came early in the 4th where the Heat made their run. After two Mike Miller 3's and 2 LeBron James layups, the Heat deficit was 4 points and the Pacers were on the verge of losing their cool, the game, the series, and their season. The sequence took me back to the Pacers-Heat series a year ago, when just like this post-season, the two teams were practically deadlocked at the end of the 3rd. What unfolded next is a chapter I'm sure the Pacers would like to forget, as the Heat finished the final 1:19 on a 9-0 run in the quarter, all but ending the Pacers' hope.
Saturday night though, the Pacers took a step forward. As that pressure mounted and Indy looked for someone to make a shot, their dynamo youngster Paul George was up to the challenge. He hit a game altering 3-point dagger, pushing the lead back to 7. A West blocked shot and a dunk by West on the other end took the lead to 9, and that's when the moment of truth arrived. This time, the Heat blinked.
As we wrote after Game 3, a team's chance at recovery from a big deficit is often quite small, often falling within the span of a few minutes. The Heat's window, open as they closed their deficit to 4, had slammed shut just like Hibbert slammed the door on James' drive. In the end, the Pacers had held the Heat to a remarkable 77 points and their frontline combatants Hibbert and West threw the biggest punches. There would be a Game 7.
15 years ago, the Pacers were locked in a tight affair with another dominant team in the Eastern Conference Finals. That team, which also wore red, featured one of the best players ever to play the game, but he too had been knocked down again and again by Indiana. In Game 7, the Pacers gave him all that he could handle, but came up just short, as that man went on to win a championship.
Remarkably, the team the Pacers lost to all but admitted that the better team may not have won (jump to about 2 minutes in).
In my opinion, the Pacers have played a better brand of basketball for the better chunk of this series, despite the fact that they are facing the best player on the planet. However Game 7 turns out, Pacers fans can know that they took James and his dominant Heat team to the limit. However, perhaps there is something in store as well for these Pacers, who despite being the better team in 1998 could not overcome Michael Jordan and his Bulls. Perhaps this is the time when they play as the better team and win in the end.
Crazy talk, right? It's Game 7, it is in Miami, and it is LeBron's moment of validation.
Still, a puncher's chance.