David West finally said it once the series was over.
"This was our Game 7 even though we knew we had an extra one at home. We couldn't lose this game. I was just trying to keep guys confident. Ultimately, I wanted it to be on my shoulders. If we lost this game, I wanted it to be on me."
This was the moment so many had been waiting for throughout the season and through the playoffs. There had been glimpses of West stepping up, but never in full effect.
It was something he couldn't do too soon. He had to allow this team that weighs heavy on the basketball gifts of, as Tom Lewis of Indycornrows.com put it, "two 23-year olds and the mood swings of a 7'2" center" to find itself before he could step in and save them from themselves. But it seems West almost waited too long and nearly cost the Pacers a chance to improve on their ascent after last year's performance.
The moment he seemed to realize this came not in Game 6, as many think, but earlier. There was a 17-3 run during the end of the second quarter of Game 5 of the Wizards series that if we go back, will prove to be the moment when David West initially reached that point. He hit a corner 3 to end the half to stop the bleeding and walked off the court with the extreme opposite of a smile on his face.
The shot didn't turn the game around, didn't provide any sort of momentum or have any direct or indirect impact on the final results of the game. The Pacers simply got their ass kicked. But that shot did set in motion West's fed-upness of "if this is gonna get done," he was going to have to be the one to do it.
Tired of going through it all, tired of watching a team, again, his team, spiral away in epic inconsistency, tired of (probably) waiting for this team to snap out of it, West did what leaders do. Or are supposed to do.
What he has to continue to do.
Now is the "be mindful of what you ask for" moment. They face a wall with heroes waiting on the other side with two rings. A wall that, despite showing some cracks, will not crumble. The Miami Heat, having looked just as bad as the Pacers in the last month of the season -- and at times not much better than them during the second round of the playoffs -- are still the wall the Pacers have to climb over, crawl under, go around or break through. Again, the Heat will not beat themselves; the wall won't fall on its own.
Breaking through rests on David West's shoulders. Everything. The whole schizophrenic, enigmatic, too often narcissistic season already came down on him to rescue it in Game 6 against the Wizards. Now he has to stay in savior-mode for at least another seven games. He no longer has the luxury to pick and choose, and allow the Pacers room to figure "it" out. From this point forward, in order for his team to advance and get one step further on this mission than they did last year, West (not Paul George) needs to be more important to his team than LeBron James is to his. Can West do the one thing that no other player recently has been able to do?
We're not talking hero ball or "ballhoggery." That's not what is needed. This isn't about one player offensively rising to the occasion, as West did in that Game 6, and as some people feel "lucked" himself into 29 points on 13-26 shooting. This is about a man instilling his character -- who he is -- into a series and having a team -- his team -- rally around him in order to discover who they are while in the midst of serious episodes of self-doubt.
In the postgame, on-court interview after Game 6, West used the word "internal" to describe where parts of the problem with his team existed; to explain what the Pacers had to fight through. What they continue to fight through.
And it's been hard to figure out internally what exactly they're fighting through. Although in a physician-diagnose-yourself moment, Roy Hibbert exposed one problem. On an NBA.com "Inside Stuff" package done on Hibbert, the player at the center of the Pacers' internal issues off and on the court, Hibbert is ironically quoted as saying: "We all have to be on the same page, you know. One person can't be out of sync with the other person. You look for a team's weakness. If [they] have a 6-6 power forward or a 6-9 center or a point guard who doesn't like to guard pick and rolls, you try to exploit that because they are their weakest link."
It really unveils the challenge West faces.
What happens when your weakest link happens to be a 7-foot-2 center who has a penchant of totally disappearing and disengaging himself? When that player's undependability and unpredictable behavior become the weakness that other teams exploit? How does a leader deal with that? How does West get that player to rally to his call? How does he get the rest of the team to not be affected or impacted during the series when they realize that their greatest match-up advantage against the defending champions has departed, leaving the team to fend for themselves once again?
George gave some insight into the team's perspective. In an interview with the media, he said the Pacers can't come out flat in Game 1, "whatever it is" causing a problem, and they must remember their history with the Heat. "We gotta have a little edge coming into this series," he said. "This team took us out twice now. Ended our season early, you know, two times in a row. There's gotta be an edge to come out, you know, and take this team out."
Even the Heat's Chris Bosh said about the Pacers on NBA.com: "If they are trying to get under our skin, they'll get under their own skin before it happens to us."
The Pacers reaching the Eastern Conference finals isn't about the clutchness (for those who, like me, still believe in that sort of thing) inside of the single-mindedness it took for West to use an elimination game to "will" his team to the next round when it seemed legions of so-called Pacers "fans" were happily waiting and rooting for the upset. Indiana's here on the strength of the shoulders of the one man who wanted to carry the entire responsibility of their success or collapse. A man among men.
David West wanted the weight only because, as we've discovered with the Pacers during these playoffs (and over the last three months, really), there seems to be no one else equipped to carry the team's self-imposed burdens. There was a reason Larry Bird, Donnie Walsh & Co. constructed this team around West. This is it. Now is the moment where West will be forced to literally hold up his end of the deal.
Points, rebounds, blocked shots, making defensive stops, passing out of double teams for 3s, etc., have minimal to do with what West has to do next. Nothing on anyone's stat sheet, pie chart or video tape is going to be a true indication of the role West will play -- win or lose -- in this series. Leadership, in this case, is not about numbers.
And this is where it all comes back to LeBron. West's "come through" in Game 6 was in a way very similar in circumstance to James's 49-point performance in Game 5 of the Heat's series verses Brooklyn. Both were games where the leaders of each team sent not only a message out to the League and served notice to the opponent, but those performances also spoke directly to their teammates, as each displayed a certain amount of frustration in his team's underachievement.
It's the Michael Jordan, "I can do this by myself" approach. It works as a great reverse psychological motivator to make all 11 members of a team feel like a bunch of ingloriously (worthless) Basterds. Once done -- once executed -- things change. Games get won. Series end.
Can West keep reminding the team of that in this next series?
It all comes down to whether he can keep doing that one thing, and do it better than LeBron.