I know, that sounds crazy. The series is 2-2, and a loss means that their opponent is one win away from eliminating them, sending them home just two wins or less short of the Finals. The momentum is up in the air, with each team having won on the opponent's home floor. They have to win this game, right? It's the pivotal Game 5!
But here's the thing. Both teams have shown how to respond to tough losses in this series, and throughout their playoff runs.
Miami famously turned a 3-2 series deficit in the Eastern Conference finals last year into an Eastern Conference championship after fending off the Celtics, who had plagued LeBron James, in Boston, in an elimination game. They lost homecourt advantage in the first game of their series vs. the Bulls, and then responded without hesitation or struggle.
And after the Pacers pulled out a Game 2 victory in Miami, the Heat responded with an offensive clinic in Game 3 as James demolished the Pacers inside.
Meanwhile, Indiana lost a blowout game to New York in Game 2, then took full control of the series. The Pacers lost Game 1 against the Heat in a heartbreaker, came back and took Game 2. They were toppled by Miami in Game 3, responded with a gut-it-out win in Game 4.
In short, these teams know how to respond to adversity, know how to win on the road, and honestly feel they can beat the other one. They're not afraid of going down 3-2, because they know how they can respond when backed into a corner.
That said, the game's result isn't without consequence. The Heat have a number of key players with age and injury problems. Can they risk going down 3-2 then finding Dwyane Wade unable to go because of knee issues? Can they find themselves relying on an aging Ray Allen to dig them out with 3-pointers? Can they survive a series that gets more physical with every minute?
For the Pacers, they'll maintain they're just as good, if not better, than the Heat. But going down 3-2 after they just took momentum could shake their confidence. At some point the Pacers may turn and face the mirror, realizing "Hey, look, we made it into a real series!" and then actually see where they're at, two games from the Finals, facing the best player and team in the league. Are they ready for that moment? Are they ready to leapfrog the pre-eminent champ?
That's an awfully big challenge for a team with players most people didn't even know the name of before this series. (Despite the fact that they were the second-best team in the East for most of the season outside of New York's unsustainable start and finish.)
And then there's this.
For all the confidence in their resiliency, toughness, and execution, both teams are locked in a struggle that comes down to a few inches, a few ounces of effort, a few lucky breaks, and a few bounces of the ball. Can either team afford to allow a series this close to come down to a good or bad shooting night? You can lose a game when you outplay the other team if the shots aren't falling.
LeBron's legacy is on the line. The Pacers' rising to contention this sping is on the line.
The key is that the Heat and Pacers may not need to win Game 5 to win the series.
But they sure need to not lose it.