I’ve had three days to let it percolate, but the Pacers’ disastrous showing in Game 7 against the Heat still aches. As Evans Clinchy alluded to yesterday, their performance in the first few games quickly inflated expectations to an almost unrecognizable point. Going into the series I thought the Pacers had a chance, but not a large one. I had hoped they could push through to the NBA Finals, but my expectations were both probabilistic and pessimistic. On some level it’s silly to feel so emotionally thrashed just because what had I expected to happen two weeks ago, did indeed come to pass. But in a shining example of Bayesian fortitude the Pacers had changed the odds and converted my sense of rationality. Regardless of how over-matched they were on paper, or in practice, to begin the series, prior probabilities had been mutated. The Pacers had a real, significant chance to advance to the NBA Finals on Monday, but fell flat on their faces.
In the end, I can, and will, come to grips with the fact the my team’s season ended a little bit before someone else’s. I mean I’ve had nearly twenty years of experience grappling with this exact phenomenon. But I think what troubles me the most is a more nuanced awareness of memory and narrative. I’m afraid the fact that they lost Game 7, and the way in which they lost, robs them of their accomplishments. Not that they will be forgotten, but that they have been looted by the Heat. The Pacers built themselves up in a tremendous way but in doing so, may have served only to make the Heat’s victory more impressive.
There is a film genre known as hyperlink cinema, which include films like 21 Grams, Pulp Fiction, Babel, Magnolia, and Traffic. A central characteristic of these films and this genre is several parallel narratives, eventually binding themselves together in the service of a single unifying theme or message. In the beginning each character’s experiences and storyline is equal in value to every other and engagement is driven with the methodical revelation of how each piece fits together to create the larger image. It’s a beautiful and alluring method of storytelling and it works in especially successful ways when the overall message or theme is suitably and intrinsically profound.
In many ways the NBA has a similar narrative structure. Each season begins with 30 teams separately weaving together the individual narratives of their players, fans and organizations. As the regular-season progresses, those stories are melted together into a larger league-wide narrative. But as the playoffs begin those stories lose their individual identity more quickly and get folded into the remaining elements. The beautifully symmetry this process creates in film feels painfully reductionist in the context of the NBA. In cinema the end product is a lesson about a single, usually universal theme. At the end of an NBA season the narrative has been winnowed to the successful struggle of a single team, with everyone else standing as obstacles overcome.
The Pacers had an incredible season. They built an elite defense with effort and execution. They nurtured and cared for two budding young stars in Paul George and Roy Hibbert, and were rewarded with beautiful blossoms for their efforts. They forged an identity, ravaged the league’s lower tier, rebuilt a fanbase, and dashed the playoff aspirations of both the Hawks and Knicks. But in the end this season’s defining narrative will be the story of either the Heat or the Spurs. Everything the Pacers accomplished this year, everything they put in place to help them extend and embolden their playoff run is ultimately a part of someone else’s story.
If the Heat end up winning their second consecutive championship, the Pacers will stand in as their narrative arch-nemesis. In two straight seasons the Pacers will have pushed the Heat down and kicked dirt in their face. They are the stylistic antithesis of the Heat and have displayed all the requisite malice of an historically epic arch-villain. The Pacers provided the tension and the rising action, backing the Heat out onto the narrative edge from which only a monumentally heroic effort could save and redeem them.
All of those same elements will hold true if the Spurs win the title, but the impact will be spun off in a different direction. Now the Pacers aren’t the arch-villain, but the tragically flawed third-wheel. They are the team that bloodied the Heat with a thousand tiny cuts, ripped back their veil of invulnerability, exposing their hubris and soft underbelly to the Lawful-Good protagonist Spurs; the team that in a hopeless battle against evil went out in a flaming blaze of glory leaving the Heat exhausted beyond recovery.
I’ll remember this Pacers’ season because of how it felt to watch. I’ll remember Lance Stephenson shedding his skin and emerging Re-Born Ready. I’ll remember the right side of Paul George’s face slowly being drawn up into a permanent snarl. I’ll remember Frank Vogel’s soothing confidence, David West’s shoulders and Roy Hibbert’s verticality. I’ll remember a defense that deserves a place in the annals of history and an offense, that for much of the season, deserved to be drowned in a bathtub. I’ll remember statistical nuance and emotional bludgeoning. But it aches that most of those things will fade for a public that paid the franchise notice for the first time in years. For the masses the Pacers will mostly be remembered as a final and stout, stage-setting, barrier foreshadowing the Finals to come.
The only thing more painful than a 23 point loss to end your season is knowing that it will ultimately be remembered not for ending your season, but as a conquered challenge in someone else’s.