- Israel Gutierrez, ESPN Staff Writer
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This feels like the last one of these.
The last step in the evolving role of Lance Stephenson in this clash, going from bench irritant (choke sign from the pine two postseasons ago) to triple-double threat who irritates by wishing injury on his opponent (said he wants Dwyane Wade's knee to "flare up").
The last time we can ask the question, "Will Chris Bosh show up against the Pacers?" given that two seasons ago he was injured in the first game of the series and last year managed to average just 11 points on 38 percent shooting and 4.3 rebounds in the seven-game series.
It feels that way because regardless of which team wins this conference finals rematch, there appear to be significant enough changes on the horizon that will either alter the dynamic of this particular rivalry, or simply change the fortunes of the respective franchises, not allowing this annual ritual to continue.
Let's say, for example, the Heat win this series, no matter how many games are required to do so.
The fallout for the Pacers will be an event worth watching. This is, after all, the year the Pacers are supposed to get past the Heat. It was evident from the opening tip of Indiana's season that the goal was to grab that No. 1 seed in the East, face Miami in this exact round of the playoffs and, if necessary, use that home-court advantage in Game 7 to boot the Heat the same way Miami did to the Pacers last season.
If this group fails in this attempt, there's no way this same core of Pacers will be allowed the opportunity to make another run at it next year.
Not after the way the regular season ended and the tumult that followed this group through the opening two rounds of the playoffs.
To keep this group together after another failed run at the Heat would be far too much of a gamble for Larry Bird, Indiana's president of basketball operations. Bird has already shown some impatience both with his roster (adding Andrew Bynum and trading for Evan Turner seemed like unnecessary moves for a first-place team) and his team's coach, Frank Vogel.
And if this bruising, mid-1990s style of team fails again against the quicker, more wing-dependent Heat team, why would Bird want to give that same style yet another try next season? The Pacers won't get any bigger, or quicker. They would just be older.
At some point, Bird and the Pacers might want to go the way of the rest of the league's elite, with pace and shooting and speed and multiple reliable, dynamic threats. And given his late-season/early-postseason funk that had many questioning whether Vogel should even play him anymore, it would be likely Hibbert would be the first piece Bird would look to move, assuming he has much value left around the league.
If the Pacers lose, they wouldn't become one of those teams that took several years to finally overcome a heated rival like the Pistons did to the Celtics in the late 1980s and the Bulls did to those Pistons in the early '90s.
They'd instead be more like the Portland Trail Blazers, who lost to the Lakers in the postseason five times from 1997-2002 and are only now fully recovered.
This will have felt like the Pacers' best, and last, chance to overcome Miami.
Now, let's say the Heat lose this series.
Well, that could create an offseason even more dramatic, with the possibilities of change ranging from "LeBron leaves Miami" (if that happens, you can say goodbye to every Heat "rivalry" until Pat Riley can get another elite superstar in a Heat jersey) to the less catastrophic but still intriguing "LeBron's supporting cast undergoes significant makeover."
There's already the feel that next year's Heat team will look different than this one.
Shane Battier is retiring. Mario Chalmers is hitting the free-agent market again, this time likely with more suitors willing to pay good money. Ray Allen is a question mark, not just because of his age (38) but also because he's a free agent. Chris Andersen could also go. And let's just say even folks in Miami would have to seriously question what Wade can consistently offer the team.
Toss in a failed three-peat attempt, and this could end up with Pat Riley going extreme with his renovations, with the only untouchables being LeBron and Wade, the latter out of loyalty.
And while any team with LeBron James still has a chance to reach an NBA Finals, therefore potentially meeting the Pacers again in next year's playoffs, you just don't know how that would affect the dynamic of such a matchup.
And that's not even considering the possibility that other teams make a significant enough leap that it keeps the Pacers and Heat from facing off again.
The Wizards and Raptors could be one move away from making the leap to contender status, and Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov won't let his team drift in the wrong direction. So it's quite possible this will be the last one of these.
The final time slow and steady clashes with fast and frantic. The last time Gold Swagger meets White Hot. The last chance for Goliath to finally win one of these.
If that's the case, let's hope it's a classic again. Because this has been far too entertaining a three years to end with anything less.
4hMarc Stein and Tim MacMahon
5hMarc Stein and Calvin Watkins