As the final horn in a Game 6 loss to the Indiana Pacers was sounding, LeBron James walked toward several of his Miami Heat teammates to shake some hands and share a couple of quick words.
His message was clear: Get ready for Game 7.
Here comes the ultimate game. To the winner, a trip to the NBA Finals. To the loser, an offseason loaded with regret. It’s that simple now for the champion Heat and the confident Pacers, who meet in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals tonight in Miami — a perk the Heat earned by finishing with the league’s best record this season.
“Each and every year there are 30 teams that would love to be a part of this, to have one game to advance to the NBA Finals,” James said. “And there’s two teams that’s in this position. And it’s something that you can’t substitute, this feeling. You can’t substitute the atmosphere that we’re going to be in on Monday night for both teams. We should all cherish this moment.”
When it’s over today, only one club will be cherishing the outcome.
For the Heat, it’s a chance to move into the finals for the third straight year and keep hope alive of winning a second straight title. For the Pacers, it’s a chance to cap what would surely go into the books as one of the biggest upsets in NBA playoff history, considering that they finished 16½ games behind the Heat in the regular season.
None of that matters much now. The Pacers have beaten Miami five of nine times this season. They need a sixth, or else it was all for naught.
“It is a closeout game and an elimination game,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our approach right now is not if we lose we’re out — our approach is if we win, we get to the finals. And that’s what we’re going for. We’re going to give our best shot and try to win the Eastern Conference championship.”
Today’s winner will open the NBA Finals on Thursday against San Antonio.
History suggests that the odds are long for the Pacers. Since the NBA went to its current playoff format in 1984, home teams are 16-2 in Game 7’s played in the conference finals or NBA Finals.
Then again, the Pacers were colossal underdogs heading into this series, and if it wasn’t for a last-second collapse at the end of Game 1, they probably would already be East champs.
“It’s going to be tough in their arena,” Pacers guard Lance Stephenson said. “We’ve just got to bring it. If we play aggressive like we do at home, we can get the ‘W.’”
Indiana headed to Miami with enough luggage for an eight-day trip. If the Pacers win Game 7, they’re headed to San Antonio, with no time to make a return swing through Indianapolis along the way.
“We believe we can win the series. We always have,” Vogel said. “We haven’t been perfect this series, but we’re going to need to be near perfect to win a Game 7 there.”