The Pacers versus the Heat has felt like an Eastern Conference Finals in the making for close to a year now. When the Pacers walked off the court after their Game 7 defeat last season, they did so with their heads held high. This was a young, exciting team who had pushed the defending champions all the way, and would surely come back stronger the next time.
Fast forward a year, and the Pacers find themselves back in the battle for the Eastern Conference title. But will history repeat itself?
The goal for Indiana this season was to build on the success of their past two seasons and to take the next step: clinching the one-seed and homecourt advantage for the entire Eastern Conference playoffs. In that respect they succeeded. They began the season like a house on fire. Paul George looked like an MVP candidate playing like a legitimate superstar at both ends of the floor, and Lance Stephenson made a big jump in his development, becoming a nightly triple-double threat.
On most nights, their defense appeared impenetrable—a nightmarish (for their opponents, at least) combination of size and speed on the perimeter plus muscular rim protection. Until the All-Star break, Roy Hibbert, rim-protection extraordinaire, looked like he was all but guaranteed to win Defensive Player of the Year.
The Pacers entered that All-Star break with a record of 40 and 12. However, they won 16 of their next 30 games, a huge drop off in win percentage. A combination of fatigue (their starters played a ton of minutes), inflated egos and a regression to the mean—offensively, at least—slowed down the Pacers and made them look painfully mortal. George, Hibbert and Stephenson have barely resembled their late-2013 selves over the past few months.
The Pacers have taken their shaky, inconsistent play into the postseason. It took them seven games to get past the 38-44 Atlanta Hawks who gave them endless problems with their ability to stretch the floor at every position. After losing Game 1 against the Wizards, the Pacers seemed to return to an approximation of their early regular season form—their defense looked great at times, and Hibbert slowly picked up the pieces of his shattered confidence—but it was still tough to predict which Pacers team would show up on a given night.
After a Game 4 victory on the road in Washington, the Pacers had a chance to clinch the series in five games, but were blown out on their own court by 23 points. That just should not happen to championship-contending teams. And they simply cannot afford that level of inconsistency against the Miami Heat.
Consistency has also hardly been a hallmark of the Miami Heat’s play this season, to be honest. But for the back-to-back defending champs, their regular-season performance doesn’t carry as much weight as it does for the Pacers. The urgency to snag the one-seed just wasn’t there, and it showed.
What was important for Erik Spoelstra’s team this season was ensuring that his side got sufficient rest heading into the postseason.
Winning back-to-back titles is tough, but winning three straight is a monumental achievement that requires drive, a huge amount of talent and no shortage of good luck. Miami’s Big Three—LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—have played in three straight NBA Finals, and last season they played twenty-three playoff games, including a physically- and mentally-draining Finals against the Spurs. Those kind of minutes wear you down as a player, and make coming back and winning everything the next season that more difficult.
With 2014-Dwyane Wade unable play like a superstar every night, and Bosh his usual inconsistent self, the burden on LeBron to carry the team has increased. He’s done just that to great effect for the most part this year—offensively, he’s better than ever, shooting the ball at an incredible efficiency and becoming unstoppable in the low post—but there have been nights where he’s looked tired (mortal, even) and his usual All-NBA defence has fallen off.
That said, while the Pacers have made hard work of their opponents in the postseason, the Heat have managed to snag themselves plenty of rest. They blew by the plucky but limited Charlotte Bobcats in round one (maybe the only uneventful series of the first round) and played well enough in spurts to win four out of five against the Brooklyn Nets.
Ultimately, the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals are going to come down to how long and how often the Heat turn on the afterburners, and whether the Pacers can take advantage of stretches, or games, when the Heat are playing below their usual selves.
And those moments where the Heat are coasting will occur. As we learned in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, Miami can look very beatable at times, especially when Wade and Bosh are unable to provide LeBron with the necessary offensive support. Against the Nets, the Heat got down big on more than one occasion, but picked up their play in the fourth quarter—a sign of a good team, sure, but also of one playing with fire.
But even if the Heat are subpar in this series, are the Pacers good enough to take advantage of it? The Heat can win playing in third gear—sometimes all they need is LeBron to take over for a five or six minute stretch, and for some threes to go down—but the Pacers absolutely need to be at their best at all times to win this series.
Of course, where Indiana can exploit the Heat, and where they have exploited them in the past, is with their size down low. Roy Hibbert was borderline unguardable in last season’s series and, as mentioned above, he began to look like a more competent offensive player in the Washington series. David West, money from that mid-range spot against the Wizards, will be a tough guard for Chris Bosh, as he’ll look to use his bulk to bully the slender Bosh in the paint.
For the Pacers to have success, their perimeter players will need to perform. Paul George will need to score consistently—a tough ask, as he’ll have to defend LeBron at the other end—and Lance Stephenson has to straddle that fine line between explosive and reckless.
The Pacers’ one matchup advantage on offence, however, is negated by the fact that Hibbert and West will get exposed by the Heat’s shooters. Chris Bosh has shot more threes this season than at any other time in his career, and the development of that facet of his game should give the Pacers’ big men fits as they chase him around the perimeter. It wasn’t pleasant viewing for Larry Bird in the Atlanta series, that’s for sure.
Overall, the Heat—with Bosh, LeBron and a plethora of deep threats (Ray Allen is shooting the ball as well as ever in these playoffs)—can spread the opposition out to their breaking point. The Pacers came very close to losing to a Hawks team who employed a similar strategy, but with far less talent. Those Hawks, of course, didn’t have LeBron James, and the greatest player on planet Earth can score from anywhere on the court—he’s even developed a nifty floater to counter Hibbert’s verticality at the rim.
Even though the Pacers have homecourt advantage, this is the Heat’s series to lose. When they’re engaged—which they should be in this series—they can play defence at a Pacer-like level, and offensively there’s no comparison. Miami was the second-best offensive team during the regular, while the Pacers were the 22nd. That trend has continued into the postseason.
For the Pacers to win, they’ll have to be at their very best for 48 minutes of a game that finds the Heat underperforming for significant stretches. While the latter prospect is plausible, we’ve seen very little evidence of the former for the past three months to suggest that the Pacers will win this series.
Frank Vogel’s team will put up a fight—their home crowd will spur them on and they’ll have some big moments in this series—but Miami will reach its fourth straight NBA Finals when all is said and done. Miami Heat in six.