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Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers: Series Preview and Analysis
- Updated: May 17, 2014
It was an inevitable road to this showdown. A twist-filled, awkward road, but an inevitable one.
The two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat renews its rivalry with the Indiana Pacers, but this time, the roles are reversed. The Big Three of South Beach now have to bring their A games to the loud and raucous Bankers Life Fieldhouse for a possible four games. Back in January, everyone would say that the Pacers’ home court advantage would be too much for the Heat. However, as the once-dominant Pacers have seemingly shown their ugly mortality during the final month of the regular season and throughout the playoffs, it’s safe to say that the heat is essentially off Miami when playing in Indianapolis.
“We’ve been on the road before,” Most Valuable Player runner-up LeBron James said following Friday’s team practice. “We just have to go out there and take care of business.”
The Heat, sitting in the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, played more like a top seed in the first two rounds, sweeping through Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Bobcats in a convincing four games during the First Round, then overwhelming a veteran Brooklyn Nets team with bragging rights in five games (Nets swept the Heat during the regular season) during the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
James is certainly getting his Kevin Durant on in the scoring column throughout the playoffs, averaging 30 points per game in nine games. James’ finest moment this postseason came in a 49-point outburst (tied career playoff high) in a Game 4 win at Brooklyn that pushed the Nets to the edge of the postseason cliff.
Missing 28 games during the regular season may have been the best thing to happen to Dwyane Wade and his delicate knees, as he has shown several glimpses of the old “Flash” throughout the playoffs, averaging 17.9 points per game on a 50 percent clip.
“Some nights it’s needed where a guy gotta keep going, some nights it’s not, I was just playing quarterback from there,” Wade said after the Heat’s series-clinching win over the Nets (28 points on 10-for-18 shooting).
The Big Three stayed big and competitive with the consistent effort of Chris Bosh, who is averaging 14.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game throughout the playoffs, including an astounding .486 percent mark from the three-point line.
With James, Wade and Bosh all shooting at least 50 percent in the playoffs, the key role players have also done their parts to help the Heat continue its quest for the Holy Grail of pro basketball glory: a third straight NBA title.
Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen are averaging a combined 16.7 points per game in the playoffs, with Allen playing the key sixth man off the bench. The 38-year-old king of threes cooled off from beyond the arc in the last three games (two total three-pointers made), but his overall outing against former Celtics teammates (and current Nets players) Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce was more than enough to keep him dangerous and relevant, averaging 10.2 points in 26 minutes per game.
The top-seeded Pacers, meanwhile, have gone from a prime title chaser to a lethargic, discombobulated wreck, then back to that same title chaser over this season and playoffs, playing most of the season with the East’s best record before going 7-8 over the final fifteen games of the regular season, despite holding onto the No. 1 seed in the conference playoffs. Enter the 38-44 Atlanta Hawks in the first round, a team that many (likely even some Pacer players) expected to be swept with little struggle. But the Pacers struggled mightily, being embarrassed on their home court in Games 1 and 5 – suffering through the anemic play of All-Star center Roy Hibbert in the process – before breaking out of their basketball schizophrenia and rallying to win Games 6 and 7 to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Indiana (preferably Hibbert) then found itself under fire once more, as the Washington Wizards took Game 1 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Hibbert, held scoreless and rebound-less in 17 minutes in Game 1, finally woke up for the remainder of the series, averaging 14.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in a 4-2 triumph. In the middle of the Pacers’ resurgence was another sickening team performance in Game 5, marking a 3-4 home record in the postseason, something the Heat don’t believe will be of consequence in their first game in Indiana since March 26.
“I don’t think the Pacers team struggling at home will be the same Pacers team we play Sunday,” James said.
“Every team goes through tribulations,” Wade said. “I don’t care what [the Pacers] did or didn’t do. They’re a tough team when we played them [during the regular season].”
35-6 at home during the regular season, the Pacers are being led by expert fisherman Paul George (21.9 points per game in 13 postseason games), who has split time during the playoffs fishing in Indianapolis lakes and being the big fish on the hardwood when the team needed him most, averaging 27 points and 9.5 rebounds in Games 6 and 7 of the first round against the Hawks (both elimination games) and leading a frantic comeback from 19 points down in the second half of Game 4 against the Wizards to finish with 39 points and 12 rebounds, shooting 7-for-10 from three. George is undoubtedly the leader by example for Indiana and is buoyed by the all-around talent of Lance Stephenson, who is averaging 13.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists per playoff contest at shooting guard.
Veteran David West continues to do his day-in, day-out consistent work in 36 minutes per game this postseason, averaging 14.6 points, 6.5 rebounds and a team-high 4.4 assists. George Hill, albeit not a stand-out point guard, has been steady with a 12.4 points-per-game postseason, along with 3.5 assists per game.
The 7’3” Hibbert, meanwhile, was a laughingstock throughout the first round, netting a total 27 points and 26 rebounds in the seven-game series, but the sleeping giant woke up for the Wizards series and has managed to average 12 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game.
The bench play of the Pacers hasn’t been anything to scare non-Pacer fans this postseason, mainly due to the lack of quality minutes (no reserve is averaging 20 or more minutes this postseason). However, score-first point guard C.J. Watson, nifty guard/forward Evan Turner and multifaceted forward Luis Scola are not to be ignored, as they each average at least six points and two rebounds per game in limited appearances.
In the past two playoff meetings, the Pacers gave the Heat all it could handle, pushing the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions to six (2012) and seven (2013) games, respectively. Indiana has improved in talent, defense and focus as the little brother to the star-studded Heat, even trading for Turner and Scola in the past year to bolster their bench.
The teams split the regular-season series, with the home team winning every game. Unsurprisingly, no game hit the 100-point mark for either squad, as the Heat (97.4 points per game allowed) and Pacers (92.3 points per game allowed) ranked in the top-five in scoring defense during the 82-game trek. The Heat knows it will physically be the smaller team in this match-up for the third straight year and that their versatility and communication on the offensive end will be critical to running a tight ship against a (when they want to be) still-stingy Pacers defense.
“They’re the best – defensively speaking,” Bosh said. “We’re gonna have work really hard to get the shots we want.”
The Heat’s key match-ups are obvious. The Miami big men of Bosh, Chris “Birdman” Andersen, Udonis Haslem and unused Greg Oden will have to do their best at keeping Hibbert from under the basket and making sure West and Scola don’t get their sweet-spot jumpers from the elbow of the court. The seven-foot Oden was brought into South Beach solely for matching Hibbert, so the former first-round pick – after playing no minutes in the first two series – will certainly have enough time to earn his pay in this battle.
In addition to the match-up down low, Wade will find himself against a familiar foe in Lance Stephenson, as evidenced in the last meeting at Indiana back in March. Stephenson got into a shouting match with Wade following a big layup during the fourth quarter and was subsequently ejected from the game. Wade ducked the idea of a brooding rivalry with the younger Stephenson, but didn’t exactly put away any possibility of one.
“You gotta ask him; I just smiled,” Wade said after Friday’s practice when asked about what Stephenson was saying to him before being ejected from the game in March.
Wade and Stephenson play in similar fashions, with Stephenson’s younger legs being slightly more attack-oriented than Wade’s. The Heat can’t afford for Stephenson to get hot scoring the ball, because he will force Head Coach Erik Spoelstra to alter the defensive scheme to contain him, allowing the other four stars to operate. If Wade limits Stephenson’s opportunities and forces him into fouls on the offensive end, it could go a long way as to which team controls the tempo.
Furthermore, Allen – as a screen shooter – will need to wear Turner out on the offensive side and force him to become a strict shooter on defense. Turner is very versatile and can be physical – two things Allen will definitely struggle with at his age.
The best match-up of the series is a no-brainer as it will be teacher vs pupil – James vs George. The respect between the two studs is insurmountable, as George made surprising remarks during March about wanting to be mentored by James during the offseason.
“It would be great to be able to pick his brain, pick his mind and just talk about the game because I think he’s a player that can help me get to the next level and continue to keep going to the next level,” George told Basketball Insiders’ Jessica Camerato in March. I wish some day we have that relationship where he is someone I can talk to – not during the season because I’m too competitive during the season – but maybe in the summertime.”
If George is to have an opportunity at his first championship ring, he will have to learn on the fly defending his future mentor. LeBron plays pedal-to-the-metal the entire game and can’t be left alone at any time. Neither can George, who has vastly improved his jump shot from last year. James and George will likely cancel each other out offensively, but the player who makes more key defensive plays – rebounds, steals, denying penetration to the basket – will come out of this war the victor. George has the tools to do it, but James is a stepping stone the size of Mount Everest.
Spoelstra and Pacers Head Coach Frank Vogel will preach defense more than ever in this game, as it was that category that brought these two teams back to the Eastern Conference Finals for a second consecutive time. But Spoelstra and Vogel will look to see how point guard play fares between the Heat duo of Chalmers and Norris Cole and the Pacers duo of Hill and Watson. The turnover battle should decide this one, because neither squad can afford a litany of errors, as one too many could turn into a blowout loss.
This Eastern Conference title showdown had seven games written all over it for most of the year, but as these teams have advanced throughout the playoffs, it’s becoming quite apparent of which team is playing to win and which is playing not to lose. I can expect the Heat to go 3-for-3 in this saga with their Midwestern counterparts and with surprisingly less drama. Miami is thinking about how to beat Indiana, while Indiana is worrying about how to beat Miami. If Indiana brings the same mindset it brought from previous playoff meetings, the champions can surely be dethroned. But that’s a big if.
Game 1 is Sunday at 12:30 p.m. Pacific Time (3:30 p.m. Eastern time) on ABC.