The Heat’s first round victory over New York has their fans in a frenzy, despite the fact that the Knicks barely bothered lacing up their sneakers for four of the five games. There seems to be a misguided belief among Miami fans that any team with more than one superstar is “good.” As such, beating the Amare and ‘Melo-led Knicks qualified as having beaten a good team. But the Knicks simply aren’t good, and the Heat-haters of the world have wasted no time in explaining this to Miami’s fans. To the haters, there is a sense of perversion about the Heat succeeding, a notion that they are the antithesis of what a team sport is meant to be, that they represent all that is wrong with modern day professional athletics. The venom with which people despise the Heat is a truly unique and fascinating thing.
And now, amid a swirling cacophony of adoration and derision, the Heat are two games into a second round series against the most criminally slept on team to qualify for the post-season; the Indiana Pacers. There was a time, not so long ago, when Indiana generated nearly as much hate as today’s Heat do. Not only were they a force to be reckoned with, they were led by the widely loved, and widely reviled, Reggie Miller, with his Shrek-like ears, unrepentant cockiness, and awkward yet deadly release. When a basketball fan thinks about the Pacers, they think of Reggie, which means that the team currently playing in Indianapolis is widely overlooked. All season long, despite positive results on the court, and high praise from voices around the league, the Pacers have struggled to gain national notoriety, and have even had difficulty attracting crowds in the basketball-crazed state they represent.
It defies logic, really, when you take a look at their roster. They’ve got three current or former All-Stars in Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, and David West. They’ve got two excellent point guards in George Hill and Darren Collison. They’ve got a rising star who has been compared to Scottie Pippen in Paul George. They’ve got great depth off the bench with Leandro Barbosa, Dahntay Jones, and Tyler Hansbrough, in addition to Collison. Among this roster are scoring threats, lock-down defenders, ball handlers, oustide shooters, and dominant post-players. And, perhaps most importantly of all, the Pacers are a team that doesn’t mind playing rough and tough and nasty. David West was born sneering. Roy Hibbert’s an absolute giant. Danny Granger can get under your skin. Dahntay Jones will D you up until you lose your mind. The Indiana Pacers are tailor made for long, gritty playoff runs, because they can play with muscle, and they can rotate through ten players.
I love the Indian Pacers. They’re a team deserving of love! And deserving of hate! All great teams, as demonstrated by their second round opponents, are capable of evoking both sides of the emotional spectrum of those who watch them play.
The first two games of the series were, as one might expect, hard fought and tight from whistle to whistle. Indiana began game one well. Throughout the first half they pushed out to sizable leads, but weren’t able to snap the elastic and run clear. Granger and George, Indiana’s first two scoring options, were all but invisible, leaving most of the work to Hibbert, Barbosa and Collison.
The second half started with the conspicuous absence of the Heat’s Chris Bosh, who left the game with an abdominal injury and did not return. But with Joel Anthony and Ronny Turiaf stepping up in his absence, the Heat made Indiana rue their inability to pull away in the first. LeBron went to work on the offensive end, slicing into the lane for easy pull-up jumpers, while the whole team buckled down on defence and slowed the Pacers’ already imperfect offence to a tired crawl. By the time the final buzzer sounded, the Heat had pulled out a tight 95-86 victory, sending their fans into hysterics, and their detractors into a disillusioned haze.
Game two was a different matter, however. Miami jumped out to the quick start this time around, with LeBron zipping all over the floor, racking up dunks and dimes. But in contrast to game one, it was the Heat who couldn’t pull away, and Indiana brought the deficit down to a single basket by two minutes to go in the 2nd.. The tough, tight play continued into the 4th quarter, where several minor skirmishes broke out as Indiana began getting inside the heads of the Heat.
With nine minutes left in the game, Dwyane Wade took out the diminutive Collison with a hard body check in the open court, resulting in a flagrant 1 and a bit of jawing from players on either side. In the end, though, the game came down to free throws, with both teams missing several in the dying moments, and the Pacers eventually sneaking out of Miami with a split.
Perhaps the most telling stat lines from the first two games of this series are the scoring totals of either teams’ top two options. In games one and two, LeBron and Dwyane combined for 113 points. Danny Granger and George Hill combined for 34. That’s a 79 point difference!!
Granger and Hill don’t need to keep pace with D-Wade and The King, because they’ve got a team of capable secondary scorers to help them out. But if the Pacers can continue to lock down the rest of the Heat, and get some improved production from their two swingmen, they will have an excellent at upsetting Miami.
With Bosh out for the foreseeable future, the Heat will need to continue to play fantastic team defence, which they are very capable of doing, as well as finding a secondary scoring spark, which will be more of a challenge. Whatever the series’ eventual outcome, it’s safe to say that this Indiana team will be more loved, and more hated, in two weeks time than they are today.