Paul George and Dwyane Wade are fighting for a trip to the NBA Finals (Isaac Baldizon/Getty).
After six hard-fought games, the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers will see the fate of their season determined by one game. Monday night's Game 7 in Miami represents a massive moment for the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, one an established power and the other a relative upstart. In the most basic terms, this game will vault either team into the NBA Finals and provide greater meaning to this season.
Yet playoff success means much more than moving from one series to the next. A conference championship can validate a team or player's progress, provide the stepping stone to greater fame, and ultimately help define careers in both the short and long terms. This game could determine much of the immediate futures for several key figures on both teams.
Dwyane Wade: As noted by our Kelly Dwyer before Game 6, Wade has had a hellish series not becoming his reputation as one of the NBA's most marketable and well-liked stars. Although Wade has blamed the Heat's game plan for some of his struggles, he appears hobbled and generally unable to impact the game in any meaningful way. If the Heat win a title, Wade can at least claim a winner's mentality no matter what struggles he has on the court. However, if they lose Game 7 to the Pacers, it's fairly clear which player will get the brunt of the blame for their inability to repeat as champions.
Simply put, Wade needs to save face at some point in this postseason to avoid a very unceremonious exit from the playoffs. Otherwise, he may have to suffer the indignity of not being able to exercise his early termination option next summer because no suitable contract will exist for him on the open market.
Chris Bosh: Like Wade, Bosh has struggled in a manner unsuitable for a perennial All-Star. With the Heat unable to play their preferred small-ball lineup with Bosh at center, he has been unable to find a familiar role in this series and has not effectively slowed Roy Hibbert and/or David West inside. Although Bosh has never been considered on the same level as either of his Big Three counterparts, the team's success over the past two years has helped him to escape the "soft" label that typified his first season in South Beach. There's a sense that Bosh could see the return of those jokes if the Heat lose with him continuing to struggle. That might only be the case because of a poor matchup, but players of his caliber are expected to transcend those issues.
LeBron James: The MVP has been good enough in this series to avoid being hit with too much blame in the event of a loss on Monday night. The narrative is set: Bosh and Wade have been the problem, not LeBron, and if the Heat lose, it will be because they resembled James's old Cleveland Cavaliers teams more than anyone could have expected. That puts LeBron in an odd position: he appears to be his usual fantastic self, but it might not be enough to get past a supposedly inferior opponent.
Before last June's title, this result would have doomed LeBron to various claims that he doesn't have a winner's mentality. With a ring, he's slightly immune to those criticisms, although not in comparison to the titans of NBA history. It may be impossible to blame James for this series, but it could be enough to signal that he's not on the level of the best players of all time — that he lacks some essential component we expect from the most incandescent talents ever. Regardless of his play, the result becomes its own prophecy, signaling weaknesses that seemed lacking only a few weeks ago. It's the same problem as before the 2012 Finals, just reshaped for a different set of circumstances.
Erik Spoelstra considers the future (Isaac Baldizon/Getty).
Erik Spoelstra: Few coaches earn as much respect in NBA circles as Spoelstra, but this is still a results-based business in which every failure by a great team becomes a major problem. A loss by the Heat would bring up some uncomfortable facts: that the Heat would have only one title in three seasons when they were expected to be a dynasty, that the lone title came in a lockout-shortened season, that a star player complained about his touches before the deciding game of the series. Spoelstra is considered a good enough coach that he'll get time to prove those doubts wrong, but falling short of a third-consecutive Finals appearance could at least set in motion a new narrative that paints him as lacking the tools to maximize this group's potential.
It should be fairly clear that the Heat mostly stand to lose. While a win would bring familiar plaudits, they're still the odds-on favorites for the championship and can therefore only disappoint. The Pacers, on the other hand, have already exceeded expectations. No matter what happens in Game 7, they've stepped up a level in this postseason, moving from a nice team few think can seriously challenge for a title to the sort of squad veterans join for the express purpose of chasing a ring. They're a clear contender, not just a bunch of bystanders. Accordingly, a trip to the final round would bring them a great deal of added fame.
Paul George: It's hard to remember after his stellar play against the Heat, but George actually wasn't an offensive dynamo in the first two rounds of the playoffs, shooting at around 40 percent from the field and succeeding more on the strength of his all-around game, when at all. The conference finals have been a different story, with George shooting 50 percent from the field and averaging 21.5 points per game. He hasn't been as good as LeBron, but he's been excellent enough that a Game 7 win would make a "George bests LeBron" storyline plausible. While George has likely already cemented himself an All-Star spot next season and regular mentions among the best young players in the NBA, a trip to the finals could vault him much higher. We're talking a starting All-Star spot, a certain max-level contract, and top-five rankings in poorly considered trade value columns. He's on the cusp of becoming a superstar, at least for a little while.
Roy Hibbert: For all George's greatness, the Pacers are in a position to win this series because the Heat have no answer for Hibbert. That's an outcome of matchups, certainly, but it has also paved the way for Hibbert to be seen as one of the few dominant centers a time when the position has been made significantly less relevant than many fans are used to. Hibbert can be seen through many prisms — the last of a dying breed, the man who brings the center position back to relevance, etc. — each of which presents him as a titan inside. With a matchup against Tim Duncan looming, a win against the Heat would effectively make Hibbert the most marketable player on the Pacers for a series in which the NBA desperately needs anything to interest the general public. In other words, Hibbert could become a media darling.
Related coverage on Yahoo! Sports:
• Ray Allen often has a personal team bus ride to game-day practice
• Pacers' Roy Hibbert apologizes for choice of words after Game 6
• Spurs' Manu Ginobili is not planning on retiring
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