MIAMI -- Here were the Indiana Pacers, who as it turned out, contributed even more mightily than we thought to denying us the Knicks vs. the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals -- the series that most of America wanted.
Hours before the Pacers and Heat battled to the final horn of an overtime thriller in Game 1, it was reported that Carmelo Anthony had played the entire playoffs with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. That injury was sustained in an April 14 game against the Pacers when Sam Young and David West sandwiched Melo on a layup attempt at Madison Square Garden.
The Pacers then dispatched the Knicks and their wounded superstar in six games in the conference semifinals and brought their rough-and-tumble talents to South Beach. They were everything they imagined themselves to be in Game 1 -- resilient, physical, stubborn, lucky, unlucky and flawed. And right down to the last possession, they were just like every other team in the NBA: Just another team without LeBron James.
Everyone is going to pin this one on Frank Vogel for not having Roy Hibbert on the floor on Miami's final possession, when James caught the ball near the 3-point line and raced past an overextended and overmatched Paul George for the game-winning, buzzer-beating layup in Miami's great escape -- a 103-102 victory that gave the Heat a 1-0 series lead. But I'm not going to do that. If I'm going to blame anybody, I'm going to blame George, who blamed himself for senselessly pressuring James on the inbounds catch and opening a lane -- no, a gulf -- to the basket.
"I've got to understand: You've got to make LeBron shoot a jumper at that point," George said. "I gave him pressure. I was up too close on him. You've got to make him shoot a jumper."
But I'm not going to blame George, either, because he's a 23-year-old, third-year player guarding LeBron James on the last possession of a playoff game. This is who we knew the Pacers were: A connected, defensively relentless team with a puncher's chance to make this a series but not enough firepower or experience to win it.
We're going to blame Frank Vogel for that? After the job he did in getting the Pacers here? After the perfect demeanor he displayed in those huddles they kept showing on TV?
What I'll remember coming out of this game and heading into Game 2 on Friday night is not that Vogel made a tactical error down the stretch. I won't think about what might have been if his 7-foot rim protector had been in the paint instead of on the bench when James glided in, unchallenged, for the winning basket. That's what Pacers fans will remember. That's what the Pacers themselves were distraught over in the locker room after the game, as George sat with an ice bag on each knee, staring catatonically at a crowd of media while George Hill sat with his head in his hands.
I'll remember Vogel's priceless expression after George had fired in a 32-foot 3-pointer at the end of regulation to send the game to overtime. In the huddle, Vogel was smiling, and if my lip-reading skills are up to snuff, he was saying something like, "Who wants to go win this game?" It was good coaching, the perfect antidote to the easily frayed nerves of a young team trying to steal a game on the road against the defending champions.
Then, after George improbably sank three free throws after a dubious call on Dwyane Wade on a 3-point attempt with 2.2 seconds left in overtime, Vogel made a mistake. Just as he'd done on the previous possession, he went with a smaller lineup that would be nimble enough to switch on screens with Hibbert on the bench. And just as James had done on the previous possession that had given Miami a 101-99 lead, he got a layup out of it. Except this time, there was no more time left -- no more chances.
"Things would've been different if I was in," Hibbert said. "I might've gone and tried to block the shot and he would've passed it to [Chris] Bosh for a jumper. If I was in there and the same play went down, I think I could've blocked it. But you never know."
George, who made a bigger mistake than Vogel by hesitating when Ray Allen ran toward the corner and then scrambling to overplay James on the inbounds catch, was even more blunt when asked if he wanted Hibbert on the floor.
"Yeah, I think we all would," George said. "He does an amazing job of protecting the rim and I'm 100 percent sure he would've been there."
The good thing about it is, chances are we're going to find out. The Pacers are good and tough-minded and resilient enough to put themselves in this very same predicament again, and Vogel admitted after the game, "I would say we'll probably have [Hibbert] in next time."
So next time, when Hibbert is in, everyone will see what Vogel sees in his nightmares: That the Heat are too good and have too many weapons and options. Instead of James driving to the rim for a layup, we'll see him pull up for a game-winning jumper … or pass to Bosh for a game-winning jumper after luring the lumbering Hibbert out of the paint … or to Wade (who'd fouled out this time) for a game-winning floater … or to Allen for a game-winning jumper off a curl.
By the time this series is over, we'll see the Pacers put themselves in the very same situation again, and we'll see the Heat find different ways to beat them.
"I peeked over my left shoulder and I saw Paul George was a little out of place," James said. "So I just took off. ... I just saw him leaning a little bit, just a quick second."
That's all it took; just a quick second. For a team that had taken out Anthony and the Knicks twice - back in April when they tore up his shoulder and again in the playoffs - here were the Indiana Pacers trying to do the same to LeBron James and the Heat.
And this was one of those times when it didn't have to be somebody's fault. It's just the way it is.
"This one hurts," Hibbert said, and he was right. But so was West, who sat shirtless at his locker afterward and walked through every step of the final play and tried to explain what happened in a voice hoarse from all the screaming out there on the floor.
"We've got to let it go," West said. "We've got to move on."
And he was right about that, too. There will be a next time. Though no matter what Vogel does and what he tries to take away, the outcome probably will be the same.