Pacers weren’t soft, they were scared

While America waits for LeBron James to close out the Pacers with a “clutch” last-second shot, Larry Bird fears James finished the Pacers in the first three quarters of Game 4.

That is not a typographical error. Yes, Bird, the Pacers’ president, called out his team for being “soft” in the aftermath of the Heat’s 32-point, flagrant-foul-stamped bullying of Indiana in Game 5.

But Bird knows the retaliatory cheap shots delivered by Udonis Haslem and Dexter Pittman didn’t punk the Pacers Tuesday night. Bird fears James stole their heart 48 hours earlier with the kind of relentless, virtuosic performance that is the true hallmark of an NBA all-time great.

A superstar, a legitimate legend, can close out/irreversibly demoralize an opponent at any time during an NBA game and/or playoff series. The skills are not mutually exclusive, but there is a significant difference between being a guy who loves to take the big, last-second shot (Robert Horry, Reggie Miller, Chauncey Billups) and a guy who can mentally cripple an opponent (Bird, Magic, Michael, Kareem, Russell, Shaq).

Bird knows this intimately. His specialty was demoralization and imposing his will. He frustrated opponents until the little voice inside their heads convinced them that losing was inevitable, resistance was futile.

Re-watch the first quarter of Game 5. The Pacers were still dealing with the impact of the 40-point, 18-rebound, nine-assist bomb James dropped in Game 4.

James, his 250-pound sculpted frame, his seemingly limitless arsenal of weapons, his Lance Armstrong-like cardiovascular strength, his ability to control the pace and his rejuvenated sidekick, Dwyane Wade, intimidated the Pacers.

Danny Granger took the court convinced he needed to have an amazing night from beyond the three-point arc for the Pacers to have any chance at winning Game 5. The three 3-pointers he nailed in the first quarter were bad-tone fool’s gold that masked the fact Roy Hibbert wasn’t getting the appropriate looks inside. David West opened the game on autopilot. He had no energy. Shane Battier embarrassed West, pestering him into several awful low-block misses. Paul George was petrified. George Hill was lost.

The Pacers hung around for most of the first half, and then James and Wade foreshadowed what was to come with a 47-second, one-free throw, two-bucket blitz as the half closed.

The Pacers were done. It had absolutely nothing to do with Haslem’s WWE-style takedown of Tyler Hansbrough. Pittman’s bush-league assault on Lance Stephenson was even more irrelevant.

James imposed his will in Game 4. Bird is simply trying to snap his team out of its demoralized mindset for tonight’s Game 6. No matter how many times Granger talks himself into woofing at James, it might be impossible for the Pacers to mentally recover.

James is in beast mode. He’s Denzel Washington in “Training Day”: “King Kong ain’t got nothing on me.”

This is why I find the whole debate about “closing” laughable. I’d rather have Godzilla than a “closer.” If used effectively, Godzilla makes the final minute irrelevant. Godzilla makes an ego-driven, decide-the-game referee irrelevant. Closing requires luck. The refs didn’t whistle Jordan for pushing off against Byron Russell. Just the other day, a ref stole a big opportunity from Boston by calling Kevin Garnett for an illegal screen.

Give me Godzilla!

Because of his poor free-throw shooting, Shaq almost always played hot potato at the end of games. But, sweet Jesus, Shaq spit so much fire and caused so much destruction the first 46 minutes that it was relatively easy for his supporting cast to close out games.

Magic had the last-second baby hook against the Celtics, but Magic won five titles because opponents got sick of playing at his nonstop pace. Do you know how frustrating it is to break your back for 24 seconds to get a good shot and have Magic hit Worthy with a dime at the rim eight seconds later?

Kareem’s skyhook? Absolutely demoralizing. Hakeem’s dream shake? Ask David Robinson about the 1995 Western Conference Finals. Moses Malone’s butt? Was more revered in NBA locker rooms than Kim Kardashian’s is now. The chip on Isiah’s shoulder? It created the Bad Boy persona that drove the Pistons.

Jordan won six titles with his first step, unmatched athleticism and fanatical drive. Bird won three with his flawless release, uncanny vision and bravado. Russell was just smarter than everyone else. Kobe has pulled off a solid Jordan impersonation.

The truly great ones inspire fear for four quarters.

Are the Pacers afraid of LeBron James? Larry Bird thinks so.