MIAMI -- The Miami Heat made it very clear early on in this series that they respect what the Indiana Pacers are and considered them to be the second best team in the Eastern Conference all year long. The Pacers are brutes who try to bully their opponents. They use great defensive principles, incredible discipline to stay within the team plan, and their expansive wingspan to take away everything you're comfortable doing as an offensive player.
They dominate the boards, protect the rim, and swarm the perimeter. They score inside and get to the free throw line. They have one of the best rim protectors in the league, one of the toughest power forwards in the league to lead their team identity, and one of the most well rounded young players in the league. They also have a brilliant, confident coach that everybody in the organization believes in.
And yet, there appears to be a prevailing thought that they aren't true challengers in the Eastern Conference. This whole Eastern Conference finals narrative for them has been that they're just trying to win basketball games like a plucky upstart, while the Miami Heat are trying to play for legacies, championships, and history.
I'm sorry but that's crap.
The Indiana Pacers have put the league on notice that you have to worry about them for the next few years. They have a good core that will probably stick together. They have a coach who in just his second full season coaching in this league has led his team to the edge of making the NBA Finals. So why don't we respect them as a legitimate elite team in this league? Because Roy Hibbert isn't a big enough (figuratively) star? Is it because Paul George hasn't quite captured the casual fan's heart?
While people have dismissed this Pacers' team as a real contender, Frank Vogel has reminded his team that they were within one win of playing for an NBA title heading into Game 7. It didn't work. They got blown out by a Miami Heat team that was focused on protecting their house and making their third straight Finals appearance. It's time to recognize the Pacers are the second best team in the East and probably will be for a while.
They made the second round of the playoffs last season and took this Heat team to six games. Yes, the Heat were without Chris Bosh, but it took a lot of chicanery and basketball fortitude for Miami to advance past that matchup. In this season, the Pacers took the defending champions to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals. And they aren't aging to the point of decomposition like the Boston Celtics were last season.
We constantly talk about how defense win championships and that's true. The Pacers have the best defense in the league. We talk about how controlling the glass is also something a title team needs to do. The Pacers are arguably the best rebounding team in the NBA. But you also have to score and that's something the Pacers have struggled to do on the road all season long.
Offensive improvement is something that could happen from Paul George expanding his offensive game or Danny Granger returning from the knee injury and being a scorer or a couple of offseason moves to give the bench scoring punch that doesn't involve D.J. Augustin. The Pacers have enough flexibility and options with their roster to continue to build it out.
This isn't the peak of what the Pacers are going to be; it feels like it's just the beginning. Does that mean they'll eventually win an NBA title? I have no idea. But the Heat certainly take them seriously as a potential roadblock in their quest for more titles down the road. In fact, everybody should.
The Indiana Pacers were 48 minutes away from facing the San Antonio Spurs for the NBA title and they're still expanding their capabilities as a team and organization.
That is what we should take notice of in this postseason. The Spurs and Heat will play for the NBA title, but the Pacers are nipping at their heels.