So here we are. The Heat vs the Pacers. Indiana vs Miami. The 2014 NBA Eastern Conference Finals. It was what everyone expected at the start of the season and what no one saw coming just a few weeks ago.
The two teams have had very different paths up to this point. Both teams struggled down the stretch of the regular season, with Indiana limping to a 6-9 finish, while Miami didn’t fare much better, going 7-8 in their last 15 games and losing their final three after conceding the first seed.
Once the playoffs hit, however, it became clear that one team was genuinely struggling, while the other was just on cruise control. The Pacers needed all seven games of the first round to beat the only sub-0.500 team in the playoffs, trailing 0-1, 1-2 and 2-3 before rallying to win the final two games against the Atlanta Hawks. Then, against the upstart Washington Wizards, they lost game one again, and after taking a commanding 3-1 lead in the series coughed up one of the smelliest games in franchise history at home, getting outrebounded by an NBA playoff record 39. They regrouped and finished the Wizards in six, but the wild inconsistency displayed by the Pacers over the last couple of months means no one has any idea what to expect from this team anymore.
The Heat, on the other hand, essentially got a bye in the first round against the Charlotte Bobcats, who were crippled by an injury to All Jefferson, their best player and the only chance they had. So it was a sweep, and no one was surprised. In the second round, the Brooklyn Nets, who swept the Heat 4-0 in the regular season, were supposed to provide a real challenge. Instead, the Heat relied on LeBron’s brilliance and completed a “gentlemen’s sweep” of the Nets in just five games.
If you’re gauging momentum and apparent form, you’d be crazy not to pick the Heat over the Pacers. And that’s why, when I did a preliminary search for predictions on the series, only about two analysts out of about 50 picked the Pacers — and in seven. Everyone else had the Heat, with the majority suggesting five or six games.
And to be honest, that’s where my head tells me to lean too. Seeing LeBron going on a solo destruction tour of Brooklyn reminded me just what a trump card the Heat have in every series. When the going gets tough, dump it to Lebron and watch him go to work. That’s why they’ve been able to play just nine games heading into the conference finals despite Dwyane Wade playing his usual inconsistent “depends on my knee” basketball and Chris Bosh becoming a spot up three-point shooter.
That said, I’m not ready to write the Pacers off just yet. They’ve proven me and just about everyone else wrong multiple times over the past few weeks already. They were gone when they got down 2-3 against Atlanta, and when they squeezed by in game seven, the prognosis was that they were lucky because the Hawks are crap. Sure, there were matchup issues, but let’s not kid ourselves. They nearly lost to by far the worst team in the playoffs.
NBA memory is short, so a lot of people would have forgotten already that the vast majority of people jumped on the Wizards bandwagon in the second round. They were young and inexperienced, but that’s what people said before they disposed of the mentally tough but offensively challenged Chicago Bulls in five. And when the Wizards took game one, comfortably too, the Pacers obituaries were already being written. I was one of them.
And when the Pacers took a 3-1 lead, they were supposed to be “back”, but then that embarrassing game five loss happened and everyone assumed they would lose games six and seven too. So even when they got the win in game six, the Pacers were “lucky” again. The Wizards were suddenly “not ready” and too “inexperienced” again.
Are we being fair to the Pacers? No. But do they have anyone to blame but themselves? No. That’s what comes with expectations of being a championship-caliber team, and the Pacers have only shown glimpses of that these playoffs — which is, mind you, still better than the nothing they had shown towards the end of the regular season.
That’s what makes this such an intriguing series. We know what we’re going to get with Miami — provided DWade’s knee holds up, but we have no idea what we’re getting from Indiana. We assume the Pacers will be up for Miami because they always are, but that’s what we assumed in the game five closeout game against the Wizards. We have no clue if Roy Hibbert will give them fits again like he did last season, or if he will be the double goose egg guy we’ve seen twice this postseason already. We know Paul George’s defense will be as solid, but will be able to provide consistent offense? Will George Hill be aggressive like the Pacers need him to be, or will he disappear again? Will Lance Stephenson be good Lance or bad Lance? Will the Pacers bench, “upgraded” in the offseason precisely for this matchup, do its job or be the weak link again? Has the turmoil of the last few months made the team stronger, as the Pacers have claimed, or more fragile? And will the home court advantage the Pacers have worked so hard for all season even make a difference? The Pacers were an NBA-best 35-6 in the regular season at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, but in these playoffs they are 3-4.
In truth, the Pacers will need more or less all of these things to work in their favor to beat the Heat. It’s difficult to point to exactly what the key factors are because there are so many. The Pacers need to take a page out of Washington’s book and crash the offensive boards. They need to limit transition baskets. They need to close out on the three-point shooters. They need to stop turning the ball over.
It’s even hard to point out who will be the most important player for the Pacers in this series. Is it Roy Hibbert, given that we know he has given Miami the most problems the last couple of seasons at both ends of the floor? Is it Paul George’s defense on LeBron or his offense against him? Is it the typically disappearing George Hill being aggressive and winning his point guard battle against Mario Chalmers? Is it the mercurial Lance Stephenson, the team’s motor and its biggest risk? Or is it the ability of David West to get bruising buckets down low on a consistent basis?
Off the bench, Ian Mahinmi will need a big series, especially if Roy Hibbert gets into foul trouble. He’s proven himself to be more than serviceable in the last couple of months, even if it doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. If only the refs would not blow the whistle any time a Miami player breathes on him. CJ Watson will need to be ready if George Hill isn’t, and even if Hill is switched on like he was against Washington, CJ will need to spot him quality minutes. Luis Scola has been awful but could swing a game if his mid-range shot falls and his hustle leads to more possessions.
The X-factor for me is still Evan Turner. He has been nothing short of pathetic in a Pacers uniform, but he did contribute with some big plays in the Pacers’ final regular season win over the Heat in March. It’s a gamble every time he is out there because of how lost he looks on defense and offense, but if his versatility can disrupt the balance of the series then Vogel has to roll the dice. I’m probably the only person who hasn’t given up on him yet, but I have faith he will have his moment in this series.
Speaking of disrupting the balance, you also have to wonder whether Vogel will give Chris Copeland anything more than a couple of seconds here and there. Miami doesn’t exactly have an imposing front line and Cope can help stretch the offense, plus his defense is not much worse than Scola’s. If the Heat play small then Cope can definitely help. I’m not holding my breath waiting to see it happen though.
So do the Pacers stand a chance in this series? Yes, I believe they do. But the margin of error is as slim as it’s ever been. As Frank Vogel said after the Washington series: the slate has been wiped clean. At least the Pacers have to think that way, and remind themselves that the team they have right now was custom built to beat the Heat. Styles make fights, and the Pacers have the size and physicality to turn this into a slug fest. They need to play with brutality, they need to play smashmouth, but they also need to play composed. The home court advantage will help, and securing it in the first couple of games is key.
There is a history of NBA teams needing three tries to overcome a nemesis in reaching the next step. The Pacers of Reggie Miller’s era, for example, needed it against the Knicks in the 1990s, losing in 93 and 94 before pulling it out in 95. Will the 2014 Pacers be able to do the same after coming so close the last couple of years? I’m not sure, and the reason is not the way the Pacers have been playing — it’s the Heat’s luxury of having the best player in the world, LeBron James. Either way, I’m convinced the Pacers will surprise plenty of people this series by showing the type of fight that has been missing for months. And if it goes seven, I’d even go out on a limb and say the Pacers can shock the world and end the Heat dynasty.