The Pacers' president called out his team after Miami's rout in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, telling the Indianapolis Star that Indiana was "soft." He even spelled it out for emphasis, just to make himself clear.
But in a series that at times became brutally physical, with two Heat players suspended for Game 6 and Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough upgraded to a Flagrant 2 foul after a Game 5 collision, the type of toughness the Pacers ultimately needed wasn't physical. The way Miami closed out the series with a 105-93 victory Thursday night displayed all the lessons the Pacers need to learn about toughness. The Heat controlled the game with a cool, steely resolve that Indiana couldn't match. Even when it trailed, there remained a sense that Miami was driving the action with a disruptive defense, a pair of superstars in Dwyane Wade and LeBron James (who capped a sensational series with a combined 69 points) and enough help from its supporting cast to overwhelm Indiana.
The more pieces the Heat lost in the series, the tougher and tighter they seemed to get. And the Pacers? They committed an uncharacteristic 20 turnovers in Game 6, four of which fueled a 13-3 Miami run to close the third quarter and turn a tie game into a 79-69 lead from which the Pacers never recovered. And a combined two field goals from Indiana's bench left the Pacers punchless -- if not disastrous -- any time the starters took a break.
That was the difference in Thursday's game, if not the series. Miami was the tougher team, just as Bird said. But it was more mental toughness than physical that made the difference.
"They were just too much for us," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. "A lot of the guys are new to this level of play, this level of the playoffs. It's just growing pains. It's hard. It hurts."
This may not be the end for the young Pacers, who set themselves up this season for a compelling future. And the rhetoric in the series about targeting players and fairness in suspensions, combined with a series that for a time was contested tightly, may provide the fuel for a compelling rivalry with Miami in years to come. But the Pacers must look to the Heat's example in the final three games of this series to see the difference between a young team learning to win and a tough championship contender.
The Heat had all the reasons to fold, and appeared to be headed in that direction after losing Chris Bosh in the opener and getting lackluster play from their bench -- a combination that produced a 2-1 deficit after the Pacers' Game 3 victory and provided easy fodder for the Heat's critics. Losing Dexter Pittman and Udonis Haslem to suspensions after Miami's Game 5 rout only added to the disruption.
But this is how Miami responded: Wade and James stepped up in ways that extended beyond superstardom, combining for 197 points in the last three games, 41 of which came from Wade in Game 6. Once they adjusted the spacing in their offense in Bosh's absence, the pair tore through Indiana's defense with screens and pick-and-rolls that produced a steady stream of open mid-range jumpers and shots at the rim.
It made Miami's rally from an early 11-point deficit in the first quarter Thursday look fundamental. Wade opened the second quarter with a pair of mid-range jumpers to pull Miami within 28-25 with 11:22 remaining, then breezed through the remainder of a 20-point quarter, sinking 6-of-7 shots from mid-range. It wiped out Indiana's double-digit lead in the first two minutes of the second quarter, and sent the Pacers into a scrambling mode for the remainder of the game.
Mike Miller added two deflating three-pointers during the run, James produced steadily throughout the game, and the result was another casually spectacular performance from Miami's top duo with just enough from their supporting cast.
"I don't know if they've been required to shoulder as much responsibility as they have to now," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said of the tandem. "Playing against good competition in this league, I think brings out the best in you. But that's what this series did: It brought out the best in both of them because they knew they had to play at an extremely high level in order for us to have a chance."
And that's the difference between Miami's toughness and Indiana's youth.
The Pacers started out tough, building their early lead by feeding David West inside with passes over the top of Shane Battier, consistently producing layups. But as the game wore on, Indiana's offensive consistency and playmaking broke down. All-Star center Roy Hibbert rarely got touches in the post, despite Miami's lack of size and strength, and finished with the fewest shot attempts (eight) of the Pacers' starters.
The bench was often a liability, hitting just 2-of-9 shots and bearing responsibility for the meltdown that let the game slip away at the end of the third quarter. That's when Leandro Barbosa and Darren Collison committed three of the Pacers' four turnovers in the final 2:39 against a swarming Miami defense, which the Heat converted into eight points.
Indiana's best shot to make it a game again came early in the fourth quarter, when West hit an 11-foot turnaround jumper and drew the foul on Battier for a three-point play that pulled Indiana within five with 9:17 remaining. But after George Hill picked off a pass from Wade to give Indiana a chance to get even closer, the Pacers' next possession resulted in two missed shots and an offensive foul on Hibbert -- Indiana's final, and perhaps most costly, turnover.
The Pacers never managed to get closer than six points the rest of the way. Wade and James scored Miami's final 13 points and left the thoroughly defeated Pacers looking to a hopeful future that is months away instead of days.
"They're just too good," said West, his voice sounding deflated. "It's just not our time yet."
No, this time belongs to Wade and James, who will take the Heat back to the Eastern Conference finals despite their personnel losses because they proved, beyond any doubt, that they were the tougher team.