Every year there are only a handful of teams that can realistically win a NBA championship. A few weeks into the season it becomes evident which of those teams are actually in that elite category. This year it’s as slim as it has ever been. The teams that know it’s their time also know the window for opportunity isn’t open for long. To have the perfect fit of players, health, coaches, chemistry, and mindset is a formula not often achievable at such a high level and once it is, it’s difficult to maintain it year after year.
At this point in the season, we have the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, led by LeBron James, who puts almost any team into that contender category. There’s the San Antonio Spurs, who prove year after year that you cannot count them out no matter how old, tired and slow they may look. Once again they find themselves atop the Western Conference standings with the best record in the West. There’s the Oklahoma City Thunder, led by Kevin Durant, who, when completely healthy, look as good as ever. And then you have the up-and-coming Indiana Pacers, with quietly the best record in the league, who pushed the Miami Heat to a seventh game in a classic series in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, establishing themselves as a legitimate force to be reckoned with and a team that’s here to stay.
The Western Conference might have a little more room for debate, with the Clippers, Warriors, Rockets and Trail Blazers as teams that can compete — mostly the Trail Blazers as they look like a complete team that has all the right pieces. However, they don’t quite make it as legitimate contenders because, every team, before winning a championship, needs to go through what the Pacers did last year: a near miss deep into the playoffs that motivates them to come back stronger than ever.
Almost no one goes from the bottom to the top right away.
The Heat lost in the Finals before winning, the Thunder lost in the Finals a few years ago, and last year it was the Pacers who lost to the Heat in the Easter Conference Finals. It’s after these defeats when teams jump into that elite category and finally know what it takes to get over that final hurdle.
The Pacers, even though they lost last year, found their superstar in the making as Paul George showed to the world he could go toe to toe with LeBron James on the biggest stage. With a weak Eastern Conference (Toronto is the fourth seed), another Heat/Pacers matchup is inevitable.
The most notable moment in the series was with both players showed mutual respect after the end of the third quarter in Game 2, shaking hands at midcourt after Paul George blew by LeBron James to dunk it during the final seconds before LeBron James came right back down and hit a three as time expired. Right then you knew these two players were going to be at it for a long time and that we had witnessed the birth of something new in that special moment.
The Pacers forced the Heat to a seventh game, winning convincingly at home in game six before the Heat finally took care of business and blew out the Pacers in Game 7, holding Paul George to just seven points and 2-for-9 shooting.
“They taught us a lesson, this team has been there before. They have been to the championship. They’ve won it all,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel told the media. “Everybody in this country knows who the Indian Pacers are now.”
This game might have been the end of the Pacers season, but it was just the beginning of what is to come, and the Pacers felt ready. Paul George went from a promising young player who sat on the bench at times to an All-Star, the Most Improved Player in the league, and leader of his team in just three years.