At 15-1, the Indiana Pacers are pegged as the 2014 usurpers to dethrone King James and his court in South Beach. And they should be. Besides the hot start to lead this year’s Eastern Conference, the Pacers were one game winning layup away from taking the first game against the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals last year, a layup that may have been mitigated with the presence of Roy Hibbert. For the rest of the series, coach Frank Vogel kept Hibbert in for the all-important plays, and subsequently, the Pacers’ combination of shooting and size pushed the Heat to a close seven-game series (minus the fourth quarter of the seventh game, but more on that later). One year removed from such a close loss, coupled with the battle-tested scars of the playoffs and no major subtractions from their roster, the Pacers are in prime position to beat a possibly fading and weary Miami Heat.
In defense of doing nothing
After the Heat’s first championship over the Oklahoma City Thunder, it looked like there were several more years of Heat-Thunder Finals to look forward to. The Thunder however, felt that the production of James Harden, a key cog in their lineup, was easily replaced by the comparable stats of others (Hi, Kevin Martin) and promptly traded him before the 2012-13 season began. If you were even slightly following NBA last year, you know that assumption was abhorrently wrong. Like, Conan O’Brien wears jeggings wrong. (Google it.)
The Thunder’s addition by subtraction method has possibly taken them out of contention, but we’re not here to talk about them. They are merely serving as the example of what not to do when you’re gearing up to beat the Heat. You need roster continuation to build up belief and experience, but more so, you need crushing losses with that same roster. Losses that make you look back at the series and have you wonder aloud if you could have done something else to put you over the top. Those kinds of regrets, believing wholeheartedly that a play here or a play there would have swung the pendulum in your favour, is what pushes a team further the following season.
And in that vein of thinking, it’s comforting to know that the Indiana Pacers didn’t take a similar approach to the Thunder by trading a possible X-factor like Danny Granger, or letting a key cog like David West walk in free agency during the offseason.
Jedi Masters and Padawans
If you don’t think that Pat Riley gave LeBron James some confidence in getting over the hump for his first championship, you don’t understand the mechanics of the Jedi Master-Padawan relationship. Pat Riley, the dark evil Sith Lord (not really, but for purposes of this section), has passed on his training and mentality to coach Erik Spoelstra, who has imparted his vast mental toughness on the likes of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. The wise Larry Legend has sprouted his own following, with such disciples as Rick Carlisle (who beat the Heat with the 2011 Dallas Mavericks) and now Frank Vogel, Paul George and Roy Hibbert. And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…
Addition by addition
The Pacers sported one of the worst benches last year, relegating Frank Vogel’s rotations to a five-man unit of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert against the Miami Heat. That’s not to say they didn’t play Tyler Hansborough or D.J. Augustin, but the two were akin to the guys you don’t pass the ball to on your elementary school team. The rules say you have to have five guys on the floor, so hey, throw them out there. Instead, Larry Legend cleared the bench and brought in a few veterans to help come playoff time. Let’s look at some of his moves:
Acquired: outside shooting in Chris Copeland, veteran presence in Luis Scola, Larry Legend!, C.J. Watson
Lost: D.J. Augustin and Tyler Hansborough (both now part of our hometown Raptors), Gerald Green
Re-signed: David West (three years, $36-million)
Live-and-let-lived: Danny Granger, the growth of Lance Stephenson
The addition of Chris Copeland hasn’t yet paid off, but it’s due to the growth of Lance Stephenson. Stephenson, a guy that was pegged as having off-court issues coupled with an attitude problem, has morphed into a defensive menace and surprisingly efficient outside shooter and ball handler (did we mention that the aforementioned Larry Bird drafted Stephenson?). His growth has been so surprising that there are rumblings in the Indianapolis media about trading Danny Granger. Not so fast.
If and when Danny Granger returns from his floundering injuries, the shooting guard/small forward may add an X-factor of scoring touch off the bench for the Pacers. Re-signing David West was a no brainer, as he served as the heart and soul of the Pacers team last year, a statement that doesn’t easily translate to the trending-metrics-happy NBA. Paul George looks to be a legitimate year after year all-star. Roy Hibbert has been a defensive monster and should be a candidate for defensive player of the year when it’s all said and done. Luis Scola has played on a few gold medal teams for Argentina and C.J. Watson, aside from his displaced year in Brooklyn in 2012-13, played under the tough minded Tom Thibodeau in Chicago. All in all, Bird has focused on keeping and bringing in championship calibre players that won’t fold under the pressure when subbed into a game during a playoff series where each possession may potentially alter the momentum of the series as a whole. However…
Lest we forget…
But, lest we forget… the Pacers have been in a similar position before. Coached by Larry Bird, the 1997-98 Pacers, who were stacked with an eerily similar roster of outside shooting, ball handling and toughness present then in Reggie Miller, Jalen Rose, Dale Davis and Antonio Davis, were a game seven away from stopping the second Michael Jordan lead three-peat. Facing a game seven at the United Center, the Pacers came within a play or two of defeating a fatigued Bulls team. There is some precedent here that’s worth mentioning.
The Bulls, in their third year of the second three-peat, sported their worst record at 62-20. Yet, that record was still better than the 58-24 finish of the 1997-98 Pacers. It’s likely that the Heat, after making three Finals appearances and winning two championships, will post a similar record in 2013-14. If the Pacers can keep the pace (see what I did there?) for the current season, they may finally have the edge needed to unseat the lion at the top of the food chain: a game seven at home at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They also have the two things that the Heat lack in David West and Roy Hibbert: size, toughness and rebounding within their interior presence.
It’s nearing the quarter mark of 2013 campaign, and though it’s still a ways away, the Pacers are living up to their moniker by being the pace car in this fledgling season. It’s way too early to count out the Heat, but right now they’re staring at the backside of a horse that’s looking to take off into the distance.