Originally Published: May 30, 2014

1. Miami Tosses Indy Aside En Route To Finals

By Michael Wallace | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Credit the Indiana Pacers for accomplishing at least one thing in the Eastern Conference finals: They brought out the absolute best in the Miami Heat.

That's what great sparring partners do.

Make no mistake about it: The Pacers were nothing more than a solid group of antagonists, instigators and irritants that pushed, poked and provoked Miami these past few seasons. But they were never really the Heat's equal.

At least not when it mattered most.

The East might as well start taking applications now for a new so-called "rival" for the Heat. Because these Pacers were officially relieved of their duties after being dismantled and shoved aside in a 117-92 season-ending loss in Game 6 of the conference finals.

It's clearly time to move on.

LeBron James, Lance Stephenson
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsLance Stephenson had his fun, but LeBron James & Co. got the last laugh in the East finals.

The Heat are headed to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season as they pursue a third straight championship. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have known no other outcome since they became teammates before the 2010-11 season.

And for the third postseason in a row, including two straight in the conference finals, the Heat propelled themselves into the championship round after breaking down and eventually stepping over Indiana. The Pacers are all too familiar with the bitter flavor they've had to taste after being served and dismissed by the Heat.

Considering some of their actions, antics and comments over the course of the series, I completely expected the Pacers to be defiant in defeat when their locker room was opened to the media after the game. But a team that's been full of surprises and bucked expectations -- both high and low -- throughout a turbulent season was true to its unpredictable form late Friday.

It's difficult to describe just how deflated the scene was inside the visitors' locker room. As reality sank in that the season ended well short of expectations for the 56-win team that held the No. 1 seed in the East, the Pacers were things they hadn't been all series.

Humbled.

Quiet.

Sullen.

Sadly accepting that their best, despite three seasons of motivation, isn't good enough. Not against James and the Heat. Not back then, not now, probably not ever.

"We know what they're going to do in these moments," Pacers forward David West said of the Heat as he slumped into his stall and stared at the floor. "And [we] weren't able to, again, match what they're capable of. I thought they just were the better team. We got right back to where we got to last year, and they're just a better team. They've got a gear that we can't get to."

The Heat have now proved that to be the case again and again.

And again.

As the Pacers players spoke about the widening gap between them and the Miami squad, Indiana coach Frank Vogel was at his postgame press conference placing Miami's dominant role in generational context. James has spent the bulk of his time with the Heat engulfed in comparisons to Michael Jordan. Now the Heat are back in the Finals looking to accomplish something Jordan did twice: a three-peat.

"It's bitterly disappointing to fall short of our goals, and it's bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row," Vogel said. "But we're competing against the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era, and you have to tip your hats to them."

James initially seemed a bit overwhelmed when informed of Vogel's lofty comparison. But after his search for words, it became one of the few times the four-time league MVP embraced the idea of the hallowed NBA ground the Heat are approaching.

"Me and D-Wade grew up watching the great Chicago Bulls teams with Michael Jordan and the rest of those guys," James said. "Anytime I hear my name or our team in the same breath with legends and great teams and franchises, it's so humbling, man. To be able to play the game and move up at a high level as teammates is the ultimate. And when you get comparisons, you respect it."

James then described how the ultimate responsibility and goal is to establish a strong enough legacy that teams 20 or 50 years from now will be compared to the Heat.

If James and the Heat are the contemporary versions of Jordan and the Bulls, that would push Vogel and the Pacers into the modern-day roles of Pat Riley and the 1990s Knicks. These postseason dramas in the East have been cyclical.

Early on, some of Riley's most competitive Heat teams repeatedly fell short to the Knicks. History often forgets the teams that prepared the Pistons and Bulls for their eventual championship breakthroughs. These Pacers might be the latest example of one of those strong contenders that simply had the misfortune of reaching its peak in the wrong era.

It was hard to believe Indiana center Roy Hibbert stands 7-foot-2, considering the way he crumpled in his locker while trying to make sense of another season turned sour and dour by the Heat. Exactly 20 seasons ago, it was Patrick Ewing, a Georgetown alum like Hibbert, and the Knicks who entered the season believing a No. 1 seed and home-court advantage would finally allow them to get past Jordan's Bulls.

Ewing and the Knicks reached their goal of securing the top seed after the 1992-93 season and had home-court advantage when they advanced to meet the Bulls in the conference finals. They lost in six games -- with Jordan and the two-time defending champs closing out New York in Chicago.

"It's difficult because we're going up against a really good team that's running for a three-peat," Hibbert said Friday. "They're like a dynasty. They're just a tough team to get over the hump against. I thought we had the pieces to beat this team, win this series. I really did."

While the Heat move on to face the winner of the San Antonio-Oklahoma City series in the Finals -- the two teams Miami has defeated for titles the past two seasons -- Indiana retreats to an offseason of uncertainty. After pushing Miami to seven games last season, the Pacers were dispatched in six this time around.

That constitutes a regression for a team that, contractually, is set up to return intact, with the exception of a decision to be made on upcoming free agent Lance Stephenson. But after three failed cracks at the Heat, even the most prideful Pacers have doubts about this roster's ability to overtake Miami.

Credit the Pacers for being the closest thing to a rival James has faced in his time with Heat.

The Bulls were supposed to be a threat three years ago, but Derrick Rose's knees wouldn't cooperate.

The Knicks have a history with the Heat, but Carmelo Anthony is headed toward free agency again and might be closer to joining James than he ever will get to beating him.

The Nets are too old and brittle. The Wizards are promising but too young at key positions.

That gets us back to the Pacers, who have been the East's best bet to challenge Miami. But as currently constructed, they'll never cash in against the Heat -- not as long as James anchors the team.

So the search resumes in the East, which is accepting résumés for new threats to the Heat.

These Pacers have essentially resigned.

Dimes past: May 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29

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