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Sunday, May 18, 2014

NBA Eastern Conference Finals Preview: Miami Heat @ Indiana Pacers

  
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2014 EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS


   Just as everyone predicted before the season began the Indiana Pacers will face the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals (ECF), which begin today at 3:30 EST on ABC. The two best teams in the Eastern Conference face off in the playoffs for the third time in the last three years, but there's one major difference this year: the games start at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Yes, despite what seemed like a season-long swoon the Pacers managed the best record in the Eastern Conference and "enjoyed" the home court advantage throughout the playoffs, culminating in these ECFs as the Pacers had assumed home court advantage was the one last major obstacle to beating the Heat. Well...

Whether or not it's the match up everyone expected is a different story. This match up seems more like the one from three years ago in the Eastern Conference semifinals - in that not too many people are giving the Pacers much of a chance. Can you blame them? After tearing through the league on their way to building the best record in the NBA the Pacers hit a rough patch for the ages, and at times it appeared to carry over into the playoffs.

The Indiana Pacers started 2013-2014 on a tear going 15-1 through their first 16 games and were on top of the NBA through February with the best record in the league (44-13), the top power ranking according to most media outlets (for whatever that's worth), and had just traded the aging Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Evan Turner. Now the sky seemed the limit. As our favorite Seminole would say: "Not so fast my friends."

The Evan Turner trade turned out to be a disaster. Without diving too deeply into the actual trade, the effect it had on the team, or at least the effect it seemed to have, was more than notable, it was amazing. Through the trade at the end of February the Pacers were 44-13; over the next six weeks (25 games) the Pacers lost as many games (13) as they had through the first 57, going 12-13 to finish the season. The Pacers then lost their first game of the 2014 Playoffs to the lowly 8th seed Atlanta Hawks, who themselves had actually been trying to stay out of the playoffs. According to multiple reports, Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner had to be separated after a locker room fist fight the night before the series began. (Note: Stephenson also almost came to blows with George Hill in March)

These two teams began the road to this match up two years ago when the Pacers faced the Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, when the young, surprising Pacers took advantage of an injured Chris Bosh and a wobbly Dwayne Wade and quickly went up 2-1. However, Wade performed his "heroics" of late, going from limping veteran to sprite All-World after a knee-draining that allowed him to go for 30, 28, and 40 through Games 4-5-6. It didn't hurt that then bench-residing Lance Stephenson, know for his diplomacy (cough), threw a chock sign to the Heat bench that he still hasn't recovered from. The Heat never looked back.



Last year was much different. Paul George was blossoming into a superstar, Roy Hibbert was playing like a 7' 2" center from Georgetown, David West provided the muscle, and Lance Stephenson was playing like he hadn't slept since Brooklyn - I wouldn't have slept a wink either if the shit I had talked sparked the Heat to their Championship the previous season. The series was played in Miami, which proved to be pivotal, as the Heat took Game 7 at home, something the Pacers insisted was simply a function of home court advantage.

It could be argued the Pacers should've gone up 2-0 in that series, if not for a coaching gaff in which Frank Vogel took Hibbert out of the game down the stretch - a stretch that included LeBron James driving to the basket uncontested for the game-winning layup. Game 2 belonged to the Pacers mostly due to Paul George's national coming out party, which prompted James to "dap" George, despite the fact that they were in the middle of a heated playoff series and they were on national television. All I'm saying is Larry Bird and Michael Jordan would never have had that moment. It speaks to the modern NBA and "branding", but I digress...

The teams continued to trade wins until Game 7, which the Heat dominated by the largest margin of the playoffs. Despite losing the series, the Pacers proved they could not only hang with the Champion Heat, but challenge them. There was only one close game in the series (Game 1, 103-102), as all other games were decided by six or more points. Despite Miami having the larger margin of victory in their wins (12 ppg), the Pacers margin of victory in their three games (9 ppg) was nearly as respectable, if not dominant. The Pacers left Miami determined to get back to the ECF against the Heat, but on their court. It happened.

This is only the third Conference Finals rematch over the last 20 years. In the previous two instances, the winner of the first meeting went on to lose the rematch. The last team to win consecutive Conference Finals against the same opponent were the Pistons in 1989-90 (defeated Bulls). (Source: ESPN)

The 2013-2014 regular season match ups looked very similar to the 2013 ECF in that the two teams split their 4-game regular season series this past season, two games being close and two games being relative blowouts, one by each team. In fact, the Heat and Pacers have split their last 14 head-to-head meetings over the last two seasons, including the playoffs. If their regular season match ups are any indication, the ECF is poised to be one for the ages.

The Pacers are essentially built to beat Miami. They're a big, long team and the Heat have fits with any team built like that, let alone a team with those qualities also essentially built to beat them inside and on the perimeter.  Miami is not a good rebounding team and they are not physical. The Heat are Hollywood; the Pacers pride themselves on  their "Blue Collar" work ethic. It's the type of polarizing match up we all dream about.



Miami signed Greg Oden this off season with the belief that he could guard Hibbert, but that didn't work out. Hibbert absolutely trashed Oden in their first match up of the season, scoring 9 of the team's first 11 point, while making a season-high 10 baskets. Oden didn't play the rest of the half and hasn't been a factor going forward. On a side note, the Pacers signed Andrew Bynum, who only played two games, and has since been released. Although it could be argued the two stories are similar, many around the league believe Bynum was signed to keep him away from Miami, and thus, keep Miami small.

Miami countered in that game with Udonis Haslem, and Haslem defended Hibbert well. Miami has essentially used him against Roy all season, and it's been effective. Haslem played limited minutes throughout the entire Brooklyn series; expect Haslem see an increased role in the ECF. 

Lance Stephenson should be a major factor in the series, and Pacer fans are hoping it's of the positive variety. Stephenson's antics have been well-noted through the past few years, but now Lance is counted on to make plays, not just be a pest. Stephenson was ejected in the third meeting against the Heat after getting two technicals - one  a double tech and the other for going after another player.  We all remember the picture of Stephenson flexing to Wade with Wade just smiling back. These teams do not like each other, and Stephenson may be the biggest hater. He'll have to keep those emotions under control as Wade is perhaps the biggest baiter in the NBA. It only takes that famous cocky Wade smirk to set most guys off.



One advantage the Pacers have is their toughness - not just from a size and physicality standpoint, but from a literal standpoint. David West and Lance Stephenson represent two of the biggest "no bullsh*t around me" attitudes in the NBA, and Paul Geoge and Roy Hibbert don't get pushed around, despite their oft-perceived nice-guy personalities. Expect multiple scuffles. Not fights, just hard fouls. Perhaps a few prolonged review moments for those inevitable flagrant fouls is in order.

The bench has been a big problem for the Pacers.  The Pacers rotation is essentially the starting five (Hibbert, West, George, Lance, Hill) with Ian Mahinmi, Luis Scola, Evan Turner, and CJ Watson coming off the bench. CJ Watson is their best shooter, which isn't a positive. Watson is good, but not the elite shooter you want coming off the bench. Scola and Turner have both struggled badly off the bench. Fatigue could be a factor as the Heat are certainly deeper and more rested, and the Heat cruised through their first two rounds while having a significantly deeper bench.

Miami's rotation is their starting five: Haslem, James, Wade, Bosh and Chalmers, with Norris Cole, Ray Allen, Anderson and Battier getting significant time; Miami has been starting Battier, but will most likely turn to Haslem to add the needed size inside. James Jones and Rashard Lewis will come off the bench and provide the same spark they have so far in the playoffs - timely perimeter shooting.

These games historically end up being grind-it-out games because of the contrasting styles. The Heat love to get out and run; the Pacers want to grind, play defense and play half court.  One problem with that style is that the Pacers offense struggles in the half court, primarily because George Hill is their point guard and he's not a true point guard. The Heat will look to trap him often, and will be successful as the Heat are a much better team defensively then the numbers might suggest. The Pacers play their best offense by converting defensive stops into transition offensive, as they struggle with the clock at times, displaying a Spurs-type offensive look, but without the actual picking and rolling. 




The Pacers are very careless with the basketball too, turning the ball over nearly 20 times per game against the Heat, often times by double teaming George on isolation plays or trapping Hill at the point. Turnovers could be a significant issue, as they have in the past against the Heat, especially considering the Heat's fast-break abilities and transition offense off turnovers.

The match up of the series will undoubtedly be James v. George (perhaps a few are thinking Wade v. Stephenson, although history wouldn't agree). George will guard James and vice versa. The Pacers will rotate Stephenson over at times to give George a breather, but George will be on James much of the series. If the Pacers can be dominate with Hibbert and West inside, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra will most likely put James on West, as he's done before.

This series comes down to history, match ups, and home court advantage. On paper this is one of the most evenly matched series of the playoffs, especially considering their regular season games, but in reality Pacers fans are worried. The Heat's troubles towards the end of the year could be attributed to fatigue, scheduling, and injuries. Many would say the Heat were just coasting through the end of the season, unaffected by playoff seeding, as they tried to get healthy enough to make another Championship run. Their attitude was "we can beat anyone, anytime", so why stress the regular season.

The Pacers on the other hand played their worst basketball down the stretch, and have looked spotty to say the least throughout the playoffs. Much talk of the Pacers demise has centered - no pun intended - around Hibbert, who put up astonishing numbers in the playoffs. Astonishingly bad in that there were many games where Hibbert scored and rebounded in the single digits...many games. In one famous game Hibbert posted the dreaded double goose egg. The Pacers have be consistent and not let the Heat get under their skin if they stand any chance against the Heat, who seemed to step on their opponent's necks as the playoffs went on. Case in point? The Brooklyn Nets were 4-0 against the Heat in the regular season; we all saw how that ended.

If Hibbert plays like a 7' 2" center, scoring at least 15 points and getting 10 rebounds while dominating the rim defensively, George plays like the superstar he's become over the last two seasons, West continues to intimidate, and Stephenson keeps his head while playing at a semi-elite level, the Pacers will win this series with their home court advantage. If Wade's knees act up, as Stephenson has publicly lobbied for, the Heat could be trouble. If Miami's bench goes cold the Heat could be in trouble. If Chris Bosh is held in check the Heat could be in trouble. 




The chances of all those things happening for the Pacers, especially in the face of their recent play the past two months, are slim. The Heat are peaking as the Pacers are trying to keep up. Perhaps this the match up the Pacers need - the match up the Pacer's have been waiting for all playoffs. Indiana could turn it on at home and show the world what they've been waiting to show us for a year. Or Maybe LeBron James continues to haunt my sports world until September.





For anyone looking for analyses on the Miami Heat, I refer you to ESPN. Trust me, just turn it on...the Heat are probably on right now.


Eastern Conference Finals: Miami Heat 4 - Indiana Pacers 3


MVP: LeBron James 


Other series notes:


Over the last 2 seasons and including the playoffs, Miami is 6-1 at home against the Pacers compared to just 1-6 on the road.

LeBron James is averaging 30.0 points this postseason while shooting a career-high 56.4 percent from the field

The Pacers are just 3-4 at home this postseason after going an NBA-best 35-6 in the regular season.

The Heat have yet to lose a game at home in the playoffs.

Roy Hibbert averaged 22.5 points in Indiana's two wins over Miami this season compared to just 5.5 points in their two losses.

The Pacers are 3-4 at home this postseason. The Pacers are the first No. 1 seed to enter the Conference Finals with a postseason home record below .500. (Elias)

By Sean Faulkner (@phaulkner) & Tad Scott (@treyphanastasio)


Thanks for reading!



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