The worst thing that can happen in playoff basketball is predictability, everyone knowing what’s going to happen before it does. The main reason most of us got interested in sports from the beginning was because it wasn’t scripted. It hadn’t been written out in advance. We didn’t know what the outcome would be until the end actually came.
It’s called … drama. Who needs reality TV when we’ve got real live competition?
All that was in jeopardy in the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals, in which the Miami Heat were destined to roll on through Indiana in the run up to their title defense against the Spurs.
Then, the best thing happened. Uncertainty happened. Great theater happened.
For a while there, especially after Game 4, nobody knew how it was going to turn out.
The series got a little stupid, at times, with players flopping like flounder on a hot skillet. The mistaken-identity cheap shot Chris Andersen put on Tyler Hansbrough in Game 5 was ridiculous. Players got fined. Nobody seemed quite sure what a flagrant foul was and what it wasn’t. Referees made bad calls. Players acted like sharks one minute, like babies the next. Roy Hibbert said Shane Battier was a dirty player. Things that coaches and players said were represented as something they didn’t say.
And, in between all that, a couple of terrific things occurred: 1.) some great basketball was played by great players, and 2.) the team that was supposed to play the role of the Washington Generals transformed itself into a legitimate threat.
On the latter one, the Pacers, who finished a mile behind the Heat in the regular season, showed in the more important postseason that they are a team on the come. That’s a rarity in the NBA, when a club evolves right before our eyes, from a respectable outfit to a bona fide contender. Keep an eye on this group, if the Pacers can keep it together, while adding back a talented lost component in Danny Granger.
Most impressive is a suddenly more brightly burning young star in Paul George, a player taken one pick after the Jazz passed on him in favor of Gordon Hayward in the draft three offseasons ago. George is to be taken seriously, the kind of surprising difference-maker at both ends of the floor that emerges only a couple times per generation. He didn’t come out of nowhere, but he elevated from expectations a few levels south of where he is now. And he’s bound to get better.
Same with Hibbert, a big man who has toiled with the Pacers for a fistful of seasons, who has been effective but not elite — until these playoffs. He’s not the fleetest afoot and he still must work on consistency, proving his newfound standing, but is there a fan base anywhere around the league that wouldn’t want him front and center on its team’s roster?
As for the Heat, they’ve struggled against Hibbert and David West where they are weakest: down low. Rebounding became a problem for the defending champs in this series. We all know the familiar line from Pat Riley: “No rebounds, no rings.” The rings are what almost everyone thought was automatic for Miami this time around.
But, then, that glorious doubt arose.
So, too, did greatness. LeBron has shown the vastness of his talent, again, dominating at times through this series. He’s as big as Karl Malone, and he can play every position on the floor, at both ends, including point guard. No matter how long we’ve watched him, somehow that fact is still fresh and astounding.
And every truly great player has to have an opponent who pushes him, who draws out of him ever more greatness. That’s another component to the good show here: The Pacers have been worthy. They’ve given what they can, edging the world’s best player toward even better requirements, better leadership. We all saw LeBron preaching to his teammates the other night, calling for commitment and courage, as though he had set up a tent revival meeting right there in plain view, and then he went on to score 30.
While the Spurs have waited and waited, rested and rested, after plowing through Memphis out West, the survivor from the East will go to battle again, when the business in front of them is done, taking us with them.
With any luck, the great drama will go on, with better episodes, until the end reveals a thrilling outcome in the Finals that will remind us, once more, why we fell for this stuff in the first place.
Gordan Monson hosts “The Big Show” with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM, 1280 AM and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.