The Conference finals are here. Things are starting to get serious, as the NBA has whittled itself down to just four teams. Let’s break this down.
Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test
The Miami Heat got what they wanted, a trip to the third round of the playoff bracket for the fourth consecutive year, a chance to defend their Eastern Conference crown, one that has been in place since 2011.
The fans got what they wanted, a long hoped-for pairing of the two best teams in the conference, squads that gave us a thrilling second- and then third-round series in 2012 and 2013, teams that squared off for four killer regular-season games in 2013-14.
The Indiana Pacers? They’ll say that they got what they wanted, a chance to dethrone the team that has knocked them out of the playoffs in consecutive seasons. A chance to go at a Heat squad with home-court advantage in hand, without having to work a potential Game 7 in Miami as was the case last June. A chance to work through the champs on the way to only the second NBA Finals appearance in franchise history. An opportunity to win its first pro basketball championship since taking the ABA crown in 1973.
Is this what they really want, though? And are they ready to play from ahead, after having earned four potential home games in this series?
Brooklyn gave the Heat a few close games and the team’s lone playoff loss in the second round, but the Heat have played just nine times over the last month, and appear more than rested as it sets to square off in Indianapolis for Game 1 on Sunday. The Pacers have played 13 mostly frustrating games against Atlanta and Washington, dropping the home opener in each of those series, mixing shell-shocked play with the sort of all-around brilliance that led them to that 58-win season.
Losing Game 1s to previously unheralded outfits from Atlanta and Washington is one thing, as the Pacers had Atlanta’s 38-win inexperience and Washington’s relative home-court woes to fall back on. Falling to the dreaded Miami Heat, swiftly losing home-court advantage to a team that it had worked since October to overcome in the standings, could prove a killer. In a season full of dips in confidence and eventual comebacks, a loss in either of the first two games pitched in Indy might be too much for the Pacers to overcome.
The Heat play well from behind. In each of their most noted playoff series – the downing of the Bulls in 2011, the championship win over the Thunder in 2012, the comeback versus Boston that same year, and the return to steal Games 6 and 7 over the Spurs in 2013 – the Heat have done their best work while on the figurative ropes. They seem to thrive on acting as the mini-underdog, and technically they should be the underdog heading into Indiana, what with the Pacers’ home-court advantage and matchup pairings.
The Pacers play much in the same way, which is good when you’re facing long odds on the road against the Heat in 2013, but not so great when you have to act the role of the favorite while attempting to steal one’s crown. It’s not as if Atlanta and Washington didn’t have Indiana’s attention, the Pacers just straight up did not play well against those two squads, and they were lucky to make it out of each series.
The hope for the Pacers is that they’ll match up well against the team they were designed to destroy, sending Roy Hibbert’s long arms and David West’s big butt and a scowl out along with a backcourt that loves to rebound and an all-world athlete in Paul George who can chase LeBron around the track a few times.
The scary part here is that LeBron can stand up to that sort of attention. And the scarier part is the idea of LeBron James hounding Paul George as he attempts to line up an isolation set late in a close ballgame. LeBron will get the calls. He’ll earn then, in all actuality.
This is what the Pacers were meant to do all along, though, which leaves any comparison to the relative struggles against the Hawks and Wizards a borderline moot point. Strangely, the fearsome Miami Heat stand in Indiana’s comfort zone, and once the jitters go away, the Pacers should get down to what they’re supposed to do.
“Should.” There’s that word again. The Pacers haven’t played like they should play for months. Here’s hoping that the familiar Miami red re-engages them.
Prediction: Heat in 7.
Dan Devine's One Big Question
Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.
Can Roy Hibbert make Miami pay enough for going and staying small?
In Indiana's two wins over Miami during the regular season, Hibbert averaged 22.5 points per game on 56.7 percent shooting, while drawing 12 total fouls and attempting 15 combined free throws. In the Pacers' two regular-season losses to the Heat, those numbers went down to 5.5 points per game on 40 percent shooting, four total fouls drawn and four combined free throws attempted. It’s not as simple as one thing -- it never is -- but the split in Hibbert's performance, and the tether between his productivity and the Pacers' result, seems instructive of the stylistic schism at the heart of this matchup.
When Indiana, a team that often struggles to make basic entry passes, can get Hibbert clean catches off screens or post-ups, Hibbert can convert those opportunities into buckets over smaller Miami defenders. He can also force said defenders to foul him, getting vital contributors in foul trouble and helping the Pacers get to the bonus faster. Either outcome forces Erik Spoelstra to stray from the small-ball identity that fuels both the Heat's pace-and-space offense and their aggressive-trapping, hard-rotating, turnover-creating defense; this represents a battle won for the Pacers, who need to dictate the terms of engagement in order to topple the team with the best player in the series.
When the Pacers get the version of Hibbert that actually makes defenses pay, Miami has to go more frequently to traditional two-big lineups to handle Indy's frontcourt heft, because Spoelstra wants to avoid having LeBron James defend David West (and dealing with the bruising that goes along with it) as much as possible. Much like Shane Battier went from out of the rotation against the big Charlotte Bobcats to starting against the smaller Brooklyn Nets, I'd expect Udonis Haslem's series-long siesta to end come Sunday.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- Haslem played well against Indy this season, averaging right around five points and five boards per game on 60 percent shooting, and Miami outscored Indy by 25 points in 59 minutes with Haslem on the floor over three appearances. But it still comes at the price of losing some versatility on the wing, some 3-point shooting on the perimeter, and some floor spacing that can help stretch the Pacers' vaunted defense … a defense that, for all the deserved derision Indy's received over the last three months, was still the NBA's No. 7 unit after the All-Star break, has allowed the league's fewest points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, and began looking like the fire of old en route to choking out the Washington Wizards, with a resurgent Hibbert locking down the paint late in that series.
More minutes for Haslem and Chris Andersen -- who averaged 21 minutes per game against the Pacers during the regular season, but saw just under 13 per game against the Nets -- alongside Bosh makes the Heat a bit more conventional, an adjustment that moves them away from their most explosive and high-scoring personnel groups. Lineups featuring the Bosh-Birdman tandem scored about 2 1/2 fewer points per 100 possessions than Miami's full-year average during the regular season, while those including the Bosh-Haslem pair were about 4 1/2 points-per-100 off the mark.
Every little bit of spacing and offensive firepower matters for the Heat. While they're still capable of generating points by the truckload due to the all-world talents of James, the versatility and range shooting of Bosh and the occasional throwback rim-attacking of Dwyane Wade, Miami isn't nearly as deadly a long-distance unit this season with diminished versions of Battier and Ray Allen, and with the largely unthreatening Rashard Lewis taking the place of sharpshooting Finals hero Mike Miller. The more Hibbert and West can force Miami to have to stay with two bigs, the less space there's going to be for the Heat's wing slashers and creators to operate, making life (theoretically) a bit easier defensively for Paul George, Lance Stephenson and company.
Plus, as NBA.com's John Schuhmann notes, Hibbert's offense matters more for the Pacers against the Heat than against other teams, because nearly everybody else that Indiana relies on to generate offense has seen their productivity dip against the Heat. George and Stephenson's per-minute scoring tailed off against Miami, while point guard George Hill fell off a cliff, from 11.6 points per 36 minutes of floor time on 44.2/36.5/80.7 shooting splits to 3.7 per-36 on 31.3/33.3/33.3 splits. (West, for his part, upped his scoring from just over 16 points per-36 against the league at large to 19.5 per-36 against Miami.) A Pacers offense that was the league's second-worst after the All-Star break and has been the third-worst in these playoffs can't afford for everybody to wane against the Heat; Hibbert's got the most favorable matchup, and is the one most capable of doing the brand of damage Indy needs to turn this into a fair fight.
Two weeks ago, saying Hibbert had the potential to hurt the Heat in ways nobody else can would've seemed insane. But after rediscovering both his confidence and the elements of his game that work over the final five games of the Wizards series -- 14.8 points on 57.1 percent shooting, 6.4 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and, nearly as important, just 3.4 personal fouls (the big fella's got to stay on the court) in 33 minutes per game -- he is back to being the most important unknown quantity in the matchup between the East's top two teams. If the run of play goes his way early, Miami could be in for a long series. But if he fails to answer the bell at the start of the series for the third round in a row, Indiana's precious home-court advantage could once again sail out the window, pushing the already unenviable task of beating the Heat four times from difficult to near-impossible.
Prediction: Heat in 6.
Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability
Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.
NBA fans have been anticipating this series for several months, if not longer. When the Pacers opened the season as the league’s best team and the rest of the Eastern Conference played to a middling standard, this playoff rematch with the Heat suddenly became not just the continuation of a rivalry, but an epic confrontation between a two-time champion and a potential heir apparent. Would the Pacers learn from last season’s seven-game series and bounce back? Would the Heat stay on top? Could Indiana’s balance top Miami’s star power?
The series we’re getting looks decidedly less special, at least at its outset. The Pacers hold homecourt advantage but have looked mediocre for the last several months. They have shown minor progress and some moments of their prior excellence, but they look like clear underdogs. Of course, Miami hasn’t really wowed anyone either, having succeeded mostly by pulling away late in reasonably close contests. It’s hard not to be disappointed.
That doesn’t have to mean we’re in for a terrible series. Maybe we just need to adjust our expectations and forget that it ever looked like an instant classic. If the Pacers win the first two games at home, then we’re suddenly met with a resurgence and genuine challenge. If not … well, I’d rather not think about it. Let’s just hope LeBron brings out the best in Paul George yet again.
Rating: 7 Crushing Disappointments out of 10