Philadelphia, PA – A moral victory in professional sports borders on being a contradiction, at least until you actually see one.
There are no participation trophies when the big boys play, only the cold, hard reality of wins and losses. Lose by one or lose by 40, it still counts the same in the standings.
"I am a moral person, but I don't believe in moral victories," Sixers coach Doug Collins told me after one heartbreaking loss last season.
That stuck with me and it's the way a coach should think. After all, you never want to show any sign of weakness to your charges no matter what the opposition looks like.
That said, all losses are not created equally and the improved Pacers found that out Tuesday night when mighty Miami arrived at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and routed Indiana, 105-90.
It was a big test for an Indiana team trying to reach the next level and the Pacers were certainly catching the star-studded Heat at the right time. Miami was playing for the third time in three nights, and most expected even the league's most athletic players would wear down over stretches like that.
"I told these guys if you rebound, defend and have good ball movement, it's going to be hard to beat you," Indiana president of basketball operations Larry Bird said about his team before the game. "You have to keep the defense on their heels and you have to come ready to play every night. We talk about all these back-to-backs, but if you come in shape and mentally strong, you should be able to overcome all of that."
Bird's words ended up as one heck of a foreshadowing device for Miami. The Heat looked anything like a worn-down team and were as mentally strong as it gets.
Miami's stars were every bit as effective as usual. LeBron James netted 23 points to go with nine rebounds and seven assists, while Dwyane Wade chipped in 16 points and Chris Bosh added 13 for the Heat. Even rookie Norris Cole waxed the Pacers off the bench, matching a career-high with 20 points.
"When you have three games away in three days on the road, we knew we were going to have to come out and get a good start, and we did," Wade said. "We knew we had a job to do and I think we really outplayed them at both ends of the floor."
Miami swept games on three consecutive nights for the first time since 1999. It was the third time such a sweep has happened in the NBA this season, and the first to occur entirely on the road.
To me, though, it wasn't about the Pacers losing, it was how they lost. I'm not sure it's fair to expect Indiana to beat the Heat just yet, even on its home floor with Miami playing the finale of a back-to-back-to-back.
However, it's not a stretch to expect a fight. If the Pacers shot out of the blocks like Usain Bolt and faltered down the stretch, well, that would have been acceptable and an indication that they were headed in the right direction.
Instead the Heat began the game on fire. Wade knocked down all five shots he took in the first quarter and Miami shot 57.1 percent from the floor while holding Indiana to just 26.1 percent en route to a 33-16 edge after one.
Just like that it was over.
"They came out and jumped all over us. There was no way that we could battle back from the hole that we dug for ourselves," said the Pacers' Dahntay Jones. "They're one of the better teams in the NBA and they're not going to let you back in when they get you down the way they got us down tonight."
It was almost like the Pacers were spectators in their own building. The Heat were The Beatles. They were the attraction and Indiana gushed like screaming teenage girls.
In hindsight, the game was decided before the opening tip by Miami's reputation.
The Pacers' next step isn't beating the Heat -- it's believing they belong on the same floor. In other words, you need the moral victory before you get the real one.