It was just a couple of years back when the Boston Celtics were the main rivals of the Miami Heat for Eastern Conference supremacy, not the Indiana Pacers. Remember that seven-game barnburner in 2012 where the Heat beat the Celtics to make their second straight NBA finals and subsequently win their first NBA title with the Big Three? Of course, that was until Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce became too old to continue serving as the centerpiece players of the Celtics and Ray Allen bolted Beantown to join the enemy in South Beach.

In the summer of 2013, Boston traded Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn in exchange for a handful of first-round picks and unwanted players, starting in earnest the Celts’ rebuilding process. How time flies, doesn’t it?

As the Celtics faded into the background while they attempt to regroup, it’s been the Pacers who have served as the Heat’s main rivals these past two years. Some would say more like foils, however, considering Miami’s rude 117-92 dismissal of Indiana in the clinching Game 6 of their East final series over the weekend. This despite the fact that this is supposed to be the year the Pacers would overtake the Heat. Spurred by their bitter Game 7 loss in the conference finals in Miami last year, the Pacers vowed to get homecourt advantage against the Heat this time, and they did, despite a late-season swoon that saw them limp home with a 10-13 record.

As it turned out, that Game 7 at home didn’t even come close to happening after the merciless drubbing they got in Game 6.

“It’s bitterly disappointing to fall short of our goals, and it’s bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “But we’re competing against the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era, and you have to tip your hats to them for the way they played this whole series.”

And so, if these Pacers, as currently constituted, can’t beat Miami, shouldn’t somebody else step forward to issue the challenge Indiana so miserably failed to provide at a time it was supposed to? As Michael Wallace of put it, “the East might as well start taking applications now for a new so-called ‘rival’ for the Heat. Because these Pacers were officially relieved of their duties after being dismantled and shoved aside. It’s clearly time to move on.”

The Pacers’ unceremonious exit, presaged as it was by one of the most hideous slides seen in recent memory, has indeed raised questions about this team’s future. These Pacers simply showed they were a mentally fragile bunch and their implosion must have appalled especially the man who put all the pieces together. That, of course, is Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird, one of the most mentally tough competitors in all history but who could hardly do anything but witness the way this team collapsed and went quietly against the Heat. And after three straight years of playoff elimination to the same Heat, even the most optimistic Pacer fan has to have doubts about this team’s ability to overtake its bitter rival, not unless LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh breaks a leg before his time is up.

What will Bird do now considering quite a few of the players he brought in to bring a title to Indiana failed to produce when it most counted? As fellow hoops junkie Allan Leonardo said quite correctly, “This should have been the year they got over the hump. Break it up, Larry!”

Foremost among the question marks confronting the Pacers is Lance Stephenson, the talented but controversial starting big guard who becomes a free agent this July after completing the four-year, $3.3 million deal he signed as a second-round draft pick. Bird has always supported the 6-foot-5 Brooklyn native, the New York State’s all-time leading scorer in high school whom he drafted out of Cincinnati despite his checkered past and numerous red flags. But even Bird’s patience must have worn thin with Stephenson’s antics, which included trash-talking James in the playoffs, talking about making Wade’s supposed shot knees flare up, blowing in James’ ear in one game and touching his face and committing a flagrant foul in the decisive Game 6.

Sources say Stephenson’s erratic behavior began shortly after his snub by Eastern coaches for an All-Star Game berth, which coincided with the Pacers’ late-season slide after posting a league-best 46-13 record in early March. The 23-year-old guard supposedly tried to show up those coaches, in the process taking him out of the flow of his team and making him abandon a previous team-oriented approach in favor of a more selfish game more focused on numbers. Because of that, Stephenson started annoying teammates. He not only started dominating the ball more and saw his assist numbers drop but he also robbed teammates of their own numbers, “stealing” rebounds from them by jumping in front of them for uncontested caroms. This annoyance came to a head in a blowout loss in Washington in late March, when center Roy Hibbert said “there’s some selfish dudes in the locker room,” putting into focus the Pacers’ already-tenuous chemistry, an area from which the team previously drew strength.

It will be interesting to see what Bird will do to his protégé. As he has shown in the Danny Granger trade, he’s not averse to moving his own guys if he feels it will improve the team. In Stephenson’s case, however, he might see the value of re-signing him to a more reasonable contract now that the market has been alerted to his young backcourter’s high-maintenance nature, and will not likely try to give him an outrageous deal because of that. The Pacers will also not have cap space to sign an equal replacement for Stephenson if he goes, making his stay a little more likely.

“I think his future is with us,” David West said. “He’s a huge part of the progress that we made. He’s a great young talent, and he fits with this group. Hopefully, we get him back.”

But Stephenson is not the only personnel issue confronting Indiana. The Pacers also have to think hard about Hibbert and how he underachieved especially in the playoffs, where he went scoreless on a number of occasions and was mostly up and down, leading to some salacious rumors that were later proven unfounded.

The 7-2 Hibbert finished with paltry averages of 9.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.37 blocks in this year’s playoffs, a far cry from last year’s postseason norms of 17.0 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.95 blocks. This makes the two years remaining in his $30 million contract a bit steep, both for the Pacers and prospective trade partners.

The Pacers have no first-round pick this year after having sent it to Phoenix last year in the Luis Scola trade, but it’s obvious it will take more than the 6-9 Scola, who has a non-guaranteed $4.8 million deal for next season, to address the Pacers’ lack of scoring from the bench. While Bird brought in C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, Evan Turner and even Andrew Bynum to help in that regard, none of them was able to help on a consistent basis, and Bird now has to look for options that would necessarily include moving any of those players.

But one big issue that may have to be addressed, despite initial reports that make Vogel safe for now, is the matter of keeping the 40-year-old coach in his job. Bird has reportedly not been happy with Vogel’s player-friendly approach and feels he’s not demanding enough to draw the most out of his players, and the fact that Bird was on a one-year hiatus when Vogel was given an extension up to 2016 makes him more vulnerable. This is particularly true when one considers that a Bird protégé, Mark Jackson, who with Reggie Miller was the leader on those Pacers teams that Bird coached to the NBA finals in 2000, among other accomplishments, is now available after having been eased out in Golden State. Pacers consultant Donnie Walsh is also said to be a huge fan of Jackson.

As Indiana tries to pick up the pieces, the team that it replaced as Miami’s chief rival, the Celtics, appear poised to make a big splash – or create some “fireworks” as principal owner Wyc Grousbeck said – this June as they enter Year 2 of their rebuilding program.

It’s been no secret that the Celtics are among several teams that are eyeing Minnesota star forward Kevin Love, and the Internet and social media sites were agog over the weekend when Love himself showed up in Boston supposedly “to check out the city and see what it’s like.”

Unless Love does the same thing with prospective suitors that include Cleveland, Phoenix and Golden State, his sighting in Boston and seeming good time while posing with local residents, the New England Patriots, a Harvard alumnus and anybody who’d want his picture taken with him could mean something more than a simple visit. In fact, fellow Celtic-phile and hoops buff Anton Ibe shared information coming from a guy who told of a similar development in 2007 (when the Celtics pried another star forward, Kevin Garnett, out of Minnesota). The inside source reportedly said, “Hearing from 3/3 sources Kevin Love is here for basketball reasons. In the past 14 days the Boston Celtics are now emerging as the No. 1 candidate for landing Kevin Love. Love and his agents are actively involved in trade talks, which prompted this trip after determining that Boston was the No. 1 option as of these past 14 days.”

Timberwolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders was quick to dismiss reports indicating Love was bound for Boston, saying, “The last I knew Kevin was under contract with us, and I expect him to be playing for us next year. I don’t really dictate where guys go on vacation or what they do. They can go wherever they want to go.”

It should be noted, however, that Saunders has to talk that way to avoid giving away whatever is going on behind closed doors, if indeed there are any, or lose any kind of leverage in whatever potential negotiations may take place, if none have yet to this point. The fact remains that Love’s representatives are believed to have told the T’Wolves that the 6-10, 243-pound forward, who averaged 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists this past season, intends to opt out of his contract when it expires in 2015. The T’Wolves thus have to work out a trade for Love or risk getting nothing in the event he walks.