Every basketball team exists in two dimensions. There's the actual, physical one where they run around, playing defense, making shots, winning and losing basketball games. Then there is the hypothetical dimension, where teams exist only on paper as the best possible versions of themselves. Rarely, if ever, do these two dimensions meet. But in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the on-paper version of the Indiana Pacers ripped through the fabric of space and time, crossing dimensional boundaries, and arriving to match up with the Miami Heat.
This game and this moment, on their home floor, was what the Pacers prepared for all season. It was why they pushed so hard in the early part of the season, willingly shouldered all the pressure that caved them in during the second half of the season, rode their starters to their frothy ends and never experimented just for the sake of experimentation. They played 82 regular season games and 13 playoff games. They played 29 different teams. But in their minds they really only played the Heat.
In Game 1 they shook off the inconsistency that had dogged them for months and played like the Pacers they had always wanted to be. Everything worked—gently rolling bigs blew up Miami's pick-and-roll defense, Hibbert controlled the paint, David West controlled everything else, George Hill made three-pointers, Paul George and Lance Stephenson carved things up off the dribble, conjuring open shots for everyone out of thin air. LeBron James was repeatedly caught sleeping on defense, looking decidedly mortal. Dwyane Wade showed up and it still wasn't enough. But most importantly, the Pacers played the way that they have always purported to play (and have so rarely lived up to, even when playing well): collaboratively, in a beautiful synergy of overlapping strengths, wrapped up in an overflowing bundle of spacing, movement and intensity. It was a beautiful, ethereal spectacle, floating along on the buoyant joy of potential realized.
And then the game ended and it was gone.
The Pacers were competitive for parts of the other five games in the series, but never at this level or any level significant enough to keep the final outcome in doubt. It is the random nature of this game that will make the memory linger. They were laughably overmatched, they just didn't know it yet.
These Pacers will be different next season, probably significantly so. Internal tension and frustration seemed at a boiling point by the time the Heat finally put them out of their misery. There are rumors that Roy Hibbert wouldn't oppose a trade. Stephenson and Hill may have played themselves out of town, by over and under-doing it, respectively. When asked if he would like Stephenson back next season, George didn't have a definitive answer (at least not one he was willing to share). Even if the Pacers were somehow able to get the band back together next season, they couldn't possibly be the same. They've been scarred by collective trauma and pantsed by the Heat on national television too many times.
Their early season dominance was revealed as a mirage and the frustrating truth appears to be that this era of Pacers' basketball has ended, shortly and sourly. Next year's roster might be filled with some familiar faces but the structure and systems need to change, the identity needs to be fundamentally rebuilt. They rode this train until they ran out of track and found themselves stranded, again, in Miami. Stubbornness might turn next season into an extended death rattle, but at some point the wrecking ball will come for these Pacers.
While that process of destruction and reconstruction will be painful to watch, it will make the memory of Game 1 more important. The Pacers were undone, by the Heat, by themselves, and by the fervent adherence to a basketball value system that had proven woefully inadequate for the challenge they set for themselves. But for one night it all worked the way it was supposed to. For one night, Pacers basketball was beautiful, smooth and stunningly effective. It exposed holes in the Heat's facade that no one had known were there, folding their systems in on themselves and making James, Wade, and Bosh chase their tails from end to end. For one night Pacers' basketball was championship basketball. And that will have to be enough.