The message on the whiteboard in the Pacers' lockerroom was simple and innocent. 'BE ENCOURAGED,' it read.
"Because there's a lot to be encouraged about in terms of this matchup in this series," said Indiana coach Frank Vogel after his Pacers had forced a Game 7 in the Eastern finals. "That's what my message was to our guys."
They responded with a strong third quarter to win Game 6 at home -- which leads, in turn, to a seventh game Monday in Miami that wasn't imaginable as recently as one month ago. At that time, the Pacers were struggling to win their opening-round series against Atlanta, while Miami was sweeping the Bucks in the midst of its 46-3 run dating back to February. The advancement of the Pacers was in no way assured, and the idea that they could create so many problems for Miami was far-fetched.
But here they are. "Game 7s are a treasure in pro sports," said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. "Obviously we would have liked to have closed this out earlier. But Game 7s are the ones you'll remember 20 years from now."
The beleaguered Heat, who not so long ago were winning 27 straight games in hope of challenging an NBA record, are now seeking one win. Just one. And they seek it with the understanding that neither its attainment nor the successful defense of their championship is the sure thing it once appeared to be.
"We've been through so much together that these are the times you reveal yourself, when there's a little bit of adversity, and things don't necessarily go your way," said Spoelstra. "This is where your brotherhood gets strengthened.'"
There are several reasons why the Heat ought to win this game and advance to a third straight NBA Finals. They have the best player in the world in LeBron James, who has been averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists in this series. They're playing at home, where they've gone 43-6 this season. They'll be able to draw upon the soothing experiences of their championship, including the tight Game 7 they won in Miami in this same round against the Celtics one year ago. They'll be welcoming back center Chris Andersen, who hasn't missed a shot in this round but was suspended from Game 6 because of an impulsively selfish altercation with Tyler Hansbrough.
If those factors were enough to assure Miami of a win in Game 7, then the series never would have come this far. The Heat are in trouble because they've been unable to hold down Indiana's big front line as led by 7-2 center Roy Hibbert, who has dwarfed Miami's defenders while averaging 22.8 points and 10.8 rebounds.
"Roy Hibbert is making extraordinary plays in the pocket -- poise in the pocket we call it," said Vogel. "He's getting the paint catches and he's just having great reads. He's not plowing over guys. He has been under control, and when the help comes he either finishes over them or he makes the extra pass. Roy is playing the best basketball of his career right now. He's leading us, and he's a big reason why we are where we are."
All-Star small forward Paul George thew in 28 points to help avoid elimination in Game 6 at Indianapolis, and his scoring and playmaking have also created problems for the Heat. David West made 5 of his last 7 shots in Game 6 despite playing with a high fever.
While Indiana has been able to rely on production from its front line, Miami has been struggling to generate numbers from All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who were a combined 4 for 18 in Game 6. Wade has been limited by a knee injury, while Bosh has been dealing with a sprained ankle and a loss of confidence in his shooting.
The formula for Miami will be to surround James with a few timely performances from the group that includes Wade, Bosh, Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers, all of whom have come up big in these kinds of situations in previous years.
There remains a lingering sense of destiny around the Heat based on the dominance of James, their breakthrough championship and their runaway success this season. It's still hard to envision them failing in a game like this -- just as it's hard to imagine the Pacers winning this game with their young roster and their leading scorer from last season, Danny Granger, watching from the bench after missing this year with a knee injury.
And yet they have earned the right to feel encouraged. "Execution and making more winning plays than them," said Vogel, keeping his to-do list simple. "We have great respect for their culture, their togetherness, their teamwork, their ability to win the plays at the rim, their ability to win loose ball battles, their ability to just reach that level of greatness. We're going to have to play our best basketball to get a win in Game 7."
As for all of the qualities quoted by Vogel that would appear to give Miami the edge, James was warning his teammates to not count on them. The Heat were going to need to put together a strong game of their own. "It's not promised," said James of the opportunity before his team, as well as its outcome. "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. And there's two teams that's in this position."
And on Tuesday, there will be one left to face San Antonio in the NBA Finals.