Pacers coach Frank Vogel paid the ultimate compliment to LeBron James and the Heat after Miami eliminated Indiana from the playoffs for the third year in a row on Friday.
There was nothing for Vogel to do except tip his cap to the two-time defending champions, as the Heat blew out the Pacers 117-92 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals to advance to their fourth straight Finals appearance.
"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."
The shadow cast by Jordan is always a part of the picture for James, who has said on multiple occasions that it is his goal to retire as the greatest player of all time. In a Sports Illustrated cover story last year, James detailed his "Michael Jordan moment" during the 2013 Finals against the Spurs, and Jordan finally recognized James as the NBA's best player because Lakers guard Kobe Bryant was injured.
The Jordan/James talk has continued unabated this season. James, 29, has a chance to join Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal as the only players to win three consecutive Finals MVP awards. During Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, James surpassed Jordan for the most 25-point, 5-rebound, 5-assist games in the playoffs. Jordan had held the record with 73 such performances.
"Me and [Dwyane] Wade grew up watching the great Chicago Bulls team and the great Michael Jordan and the rest of those guys," James said on Friday, when told of Vogel's comments. "Any time I hear my name or our team in the same breath with legends and great teams and franchises, it's so humbling, man.
"When you hear the comparisons, you respect it, you're humbled by it, and you just feel like while you're in the moment hopefully, while you're playing the game, that you can make an impact enough to where you move on and people will start comparing you to ones that's in the game at the present time."
James and the Heat are seeking their third straight title, which would put them alongside Jordan's Bulls (1991-93 and 1996-98) and the O'Neal/Kobe Bryant Lakers (2000-02) as the only teams to three-peat in the last 45 years. The Celtics, led by Bill Russell, won eight straight titles from 1959-66 and the Minneapolis Lakers, powered by George Mikan, won three straight titles from 1952-54.
It’s been nearly 30 years since an NBA team has advanced to the Finals for four straight years. The last franchise to do it was the Celtics, led by Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, who went to the Finals every year from 1984 to 1987, winning titles in 1984 and 1986. Although Jordan’s Bulls won six titles in eight years during the 1990s, they never advanced to four straight Finals because of his two-year retirement to pursue a baseball career.
Miami previously eliminated Indiana in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals and the 2013 Eastern Conference finals. The Pacers made it their mission to unseat the Heat this season, focusing their efforts from the start of the year on securing the No. 1 seed in the East so that they could hold home-court advantage against the Heat. The Pacers accomplished that goal, winning 56 games to Miami's 54 during the regular season, but they lost Game 2 to Miami at home and the Heat never looked back.
"It is frustrating, especially when we set out a goal to earn the No. 1 seed, and we didn't get to that goal of playing a Game 7 on our floor," Pacers forward Paul George said. "We've got to give them credit for coming into our building in Game 2 to really change this whole series up."
James finished with 25 points (on 8-of-12 shooting), six assists and four rebounds in Miami's series-clinching Game 6 victory.
The Heat will face either the Spurs or Thunder in the Finals, with San Antonio holding a 3-2 series lead over Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals. Game 6 is set for Saturday at the Chesapeake Energy Arena. Game 1 of the Finals, which will be played in either San Antonio or Oklahoma City, is set for Thursday, June 5.