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Trying to see NBA’s future, one that Pacers have altered

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This is a dangerous thing for a columnist to do.

Writing about the outcome of the biggest game in the biggest series of the year before it happens is a sure way to look silly or like a savant. Or, more likely, a bit of both.

As you read this today, you know who won.

Did LeBron muster enough 1-on-5 magic to will his team into the Finals? Did the Pacers’ frontcourt advantage wear out the Heat? Did the officiating tilt in Miami’s favor?

As I write before game time Monday, I do not know.

But that is exactly the point.

No matter the outcome, this series has changed the landscape of the NBA.

Here are five takeaways from the Miami-Indiana battle:

No-names no more

At the start of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, a sports comedy website headlined, “NBA.com Holds Contest Challenging Fans To Name An Indiana Pacer.”

Funny? Yes, but with more than a hint of truth and with a very good reason. A team-first approach led to a toned-down ego meter for the Pacers. That coupled with a small market and limited playoff exposure add up to relative obscurity.

Let’s put it this way. When former All-Star David West came to Indiana two off-seasons ago, he did not host a TV special to announce that he was “taking my talents to Broad Ripple.”

Now, it is safe to say that most fans know West, as well as his solid Game 6 performance with a reported 103-degree fever. Gritty, but no longer unknown.

The same is true up and down the lineup.

Kids across the country are firing up shots and swatting others, pretending alternatively to be Paul George and Roy Hibbert.

No matter where this season ends, these Pacers will not fly under the radar again.

Less is not more, but enough

Remind yourself, Indiana is missing its best player and team leader.

Oh, he is still there. With every timeout, you can see Danny Granger hop off the end of the bench in street clothes to greet his teammates.

Without Granger, though, and with one of the youngest teams in the NBA, Indiana has blown past expectations.

That is not a knock on Granger at all. The Pacers would be a much better team with him on the court. He is a lockdown defender and last year’s leading scorer on a team that sometimes struggles to find offense.

In Granger’s absence, though, Indiana has grown. George has stepped up, make that a giant leap for a player who was the fourth leading scorer on last year’s team and looked lost in much of the Miami series.

West and Hibbert have elevated their games to another level.

Lance Stephenson, whose unpredictable cycle of “good Lance/bad Lance” plays cost me my last follicles of hair in these playoffs, adds enough on the defensive end to be a plus. (Still, the irony of a shooting guard who cannot shoot is perplexing.)

Throw in that Gerald Green, picked up as insurance for Granger, has been a bust. As well, curious first-round pick Miles Plumlee cannot even get on the court.

Still, it somehow all fits together. With Granger back, it could be even better.

Hibbert 2.0.

This is Roy Hibbert’s moment. No matter the outcome, the 7-2 center has dominated play. In doing so, he has reinvigorated a position that many thought dead in today’s NBA.

Some questioned whether it was wise for Indiana to give him a four-year $58-million deal coming into this year. His mediocre play during the season’s first two months added fuel for pessimists. The NBA’s tallest player was sometimes invisible.

That seems like years ago now. LeBron James may be the best player on the court, but Hibbert is the most important. He defines the game with his presence.

That has long been true on defense, where Hibbert keeps opposing teams out of the lane with great defensive diligence. In the series’ first four games, James had only one basket when going at him, according to ESPN.

The pleasant surprise has been on offense, where Hibbert has become a sure-handed force in the paint, able to finish with consistency and flourish. He is scoring 10 points a game more than he did in last year’s Miami series.

LeBron is the best on the planet

Grudgingly, I have to admit it. LeBron is simply the best basketball player in the game today. Talented, yes. We know that. His will to win is what transcends those around him.

The record books show that Miami won games 1 and 5, but it was really LeBron alone. His play was the only reason there even was a game 7 for the Heat.

You can share my disdain for the pomposity at times, but he has grown into the most complete player in the game today. No one else is close.

Of course, he can still chafe.

“I don’t complain about calls too much,” he said following his Game 6 technical foul. Huh? Now, that’s funny.

Does Cleveland have a South Beach?

There was as much truth as humor in TV analyst Reggie Miller’s reference to the Miami Cavaliers in the closing moments of Game 6.

The vaunted Big Three in Miami has shrunk to one.

Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are simply average NBA players, no more special than dozens of others. Without James, the Heat would struggle to even make the playoffs.

That reality has fueled what will certainly be the league’s biggest offseason topic. Will LeBron stay in Miami after next season?

He can opt out of his contact at that point. Don’t count on loyalty to the Heat keeping him there. He already left hometown Cleveland.

Still at the peak of his game and with a Miami franchise looking suddenly fragile, James could well be gone.

As CBS columnist Gregg Doyle suggests, James loves the play of young Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. Could that and the Cavs’ No. 1 pick be enough for LeBron to go home?

Bob Johnson is a correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appears Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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