PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference semifinals.
After an extended layoff, the Indiana Pacers hope to fight off the rust and use the rest to their advantage when they host the surprising Miami Heat in the opener of their best-of-7 Eastern Conference semifinal series.
The Pacers haven’t played since wrapping up a first-round sweep of the Boston Celtics on April 25.
“The thing we have to fight, since we have a layoff and are coming off four in a row, we just can’t have any sort of a letdown in terms of our mental edge and competitive edge and not become a complacent team,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said.
Miami became the last team to advance to the second round after an amazing regular season turnaround. The Heat were 25-57 last season, 0-7 in November, 5-15 in December and 25-36 in March before staging a late-season surge. They got past the New Orleans Hornets in seven games in the opening round.
“We can play with any team in the East,” Miami rookie Dwyane Wade said. “We’re going to go up there and take it to them.”
To advance again, however, the Heat must find a way to beat a Pacers team that won a franchise-record and NBA season-best 61 games during the regular season.
Indiana has also dominated Miami over the past three seasons, going 9-0. The victory margins this season were 22, 6 and 7, respectively.
The Pacers took the East’s top seed with hard-nosed play. The attitude adjustment has been an about-face from recent Pacers teams that struggled while young players learned how to handle distractions.
This year, Indiana been all business.
That mentality was never more evident than in Indiana’s first-round series. After cruising to two home wins, the Pacers dismantled the overmatched Celtics in Games 3 and 4 to close out the series.
“It is going to take everything we have got to go in there and win, just like in this series,” Heat guard Eddie Jones said. “This will be a huge challenge. They are a big athletic team. They have so many different weapons that it will be a really tough series for us.”
What the Pacers have been able to do, unlike in previous years, is avoid extended slumps. Indiana never lost more than two games in a row during the season.
“I haven’t seen them get too high over wins, too low over losses, and I think that’s unusual for a young team,” Pacers CEO Donnie Walsh said.
A key to the series will be the matchups at the forward positions.
The power forward spot brings a huge matchup advantage for Indiana that Miami might try to counter by giving Brian Grant the defensive assignment on Jermaine O’Neal. When the Heat have the ball, NBA defensive player of the year Ron Artest will likely help out on the coverage of small forward Lamar Odom, Miami’s best all-around threat.
Al Harrington, who backs up O’Neal, has overcome past playoff failures by averaging 14.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.2 steals in the Pacers’ first-round series.
Just as he did during the regular season, when he averaged a career-best 13.3 points and 6.4 rebounds, Harrington was solid and sometimes dominant against the Celtics. Harrington brought playoff averages of 2.6 points and 2.9 rebounds in nine games into this postseason.
“I guess I would call it a breakout performance,” Harrington said. “Now I got my feet wet, and I have to keep my head up and continue to play hard.”
Long removed from their dismal start, the Heat now seem unbeatable at home— which is why they’re headed to the second round.
Using a fast-paced style of offense, Miami extended its home winning streak to 16 games with Tuesday’s Game 7 win over the Hornets.
“We have a lot to be proud of,” Odom said. “At 5-15 in the NBA, a lot of teams start to get ready for next year. But we worked and worked and worked and worked and worked. It paid off.”
Game 2 is Saturday in Indianapolis.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Heat - 4th seed; beat the New Orleans Hornets 4-3, first round. Pacers - 1st seed; beat the Boston Celtics 4-0, first round.
PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Heat - Odom, 16.3 ppg; Butler, 9.1 rpg; Wade, 5.6 apg. Pacers - Artest, 20.3 ppg; Harrington, 9.8 rpg; Tinsley, 6 apg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Pacers, 3-0. O’Neal averaged 22.3 points and 12.6 rebounds to lead Indiana. Artest added 20 points and three steals per game for the Pacers, who hosted two games. Jones paced Miami with 15.6 points and 5.3 assists per game.