MIAMI (AP) — 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 Monday night 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 Monday, 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.”
Monday’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.”
The Pacers had an off-the-court distraction to address Sunday. The team distributed an apology attributed to center Roy Hibbert, who used a gay slur in his postgame comments on Saturday, plus used a profanity to describe members of the media. When the Pacers’ flight left for Miami — it was reportedly delayed because of mechanical issues involving a battery — the NBA had not announced if it would discipline Hibbert.
“They were disrespectful and offensive and not a reflection of my personal views,” Hibbert was quoted as saying in the statement released by the team. “I used a slang term that is not appropriate in any setting, private or public, and the language I used definitely has no place in a public forum, especially over live television.”
Vogel said he spoke with Hibbert about the matter Sunday, saying “he obviously made a great mistake.”
On the court, though, Hibbert has had nothing to apologize for, dominating play inside while the Heat are struggling in countless ways.
Dwyane Wade’s sore right knee — which has been an issue for about three months now — is not getting better anytime soon, and he’s stopped even wanting to discuss how it’s affecting his game. Chris Bosh said he needed to get back in the gym Sunday and regain some lost rhythm. Wade is averaging 12 points on 32 percent shooting in his last three games, Bosh just 6.3 points on 24 percent shooting in that same span.
“Just got to come out and play to win,” Wade said. “It’s one game for both teams.”
Said James, when asked about the other two parts of Miami’s Big Three: “I mean, we can state the obvious. They’re both struggling.”
They’re hardly the only Heat players who picked the wrong time of year to go into a slide. Ray Allen is shooting 13 for 46 in this series, Shane Battier is at 2 for 16, and they’re a combined 9 for 39 from 3-point range against the Pacers.
Mike Miller gave the Heat a big second-half boost as they tried to rally from a big deficit in Game 6, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra suggested that Miller could get some time in the series finale.
“Everything is on the table,” Spoelstra said.
One roster tweak the Heat will make on Monday: Chris Andersen’s one-game suspension for pushing Indiana’s Tyler Hansbrough is now complete, and the Heat backup big man — who is 15 for 15 from the field in the series — will be available for Game 7.
So even on the cusp of elimination Sunday, Spoelstra was decidedly upbeat.
He lauded the Pacers and insisted that this series going the distance is a testament to the level of competition. He said the Heat didn’t mind being pushed to the limit, and that his team would look at being in a Game 7 as “a treasure.”
“You feel alive when you’re tested, when there’s adversity, when you have to reveal your character,” Spoelstra said. “Then when you do with that collectively, that is a special moment and a special feeling. There’s nothing like it in pro sports … arguably two of the top words in pro sports is ‘Game 7.'”
The Heat had to win a Game 7 in the East finals at home last season, so they understand the pressure that will be there on Monday night. But in his postgame remarks Saturday, James was smiling, laughing on occasion, showing no signs of strain even though a season of the highest expectations is on the brink of ending earlier than anyone would find acceptable.
How he handles everything on Monday will probably determine if the Heat live to play another day in these playoffs.
“I probably will not be able to relax until the game starts,” James said. “You know, it’s an opportunity for us. And like I said, that’s what we had the best record in the league for. If we didn’t take care of business on the road at some point in the playoffs, we could always fall back on this. We hate to be in this position, but it’s an opportunity and we look forward to it on Monday.”
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