Heat's Game Seven Showdown Versus Pacers Will be a Defining Moment in the Big Three EraNo player's career and no team's era can fairly be defined on the basis of one game--but certain games are more important than others. Just like LeBron James' epic 40 point, 18 rebound, nine assist performance against Indiana in the 2012 playoffs will always be remembered as a positive landmark moment in James' career, Monday night's game seven against Indiana will form a significant aspect of James' legacy, particularly as a clutch performer. Winning that game will not automatically boost James to another level, nor will losing that game somehow "invalidate" everything that he has already accomplished--but this is an interesting juncture in NBA history: the Miami Heat may win game seven en route to claiming their second consecutive NBA title but we may also look back at this moment and realize that the Big Three had already peaked collectively, even if James is still improving individually.
The Pacers extended the Eastern Conference Finals to a seventh game by beating down the Heat--literally and figuratively--91-77; the Pacers outrebounded the Heat 53-33 and outscored them in the paint 44-22. After a closely contested first half, the Pacers pounded the Heat 29-15 in the third quarter and, at times, the game resembled big brother pushing around little brother in a backyard game; as TNT's Charles Barkley is fond of repeating, the Heat's big men are not going to grow during the flight back to Miami, so the Heat will have to create enough advantages elsewhere to overcome the inside dominance of Roy Hibbert (24 points, 11 rebounds) and David West (11 points, 14 rebounds, four assists).
"The Pacers have the right kind of team to beat the Heat." I wrote those words in my series preview but I picked the Heat to win the series because I expected James to perform at an incredible level and because I questioned if the Pacers had the necessary focus and toughness to execute the correct game plan not just for a game or two but for the duration of a seven game series. The Pacers have responded well to that challenge and now a seven game series has been transformed into a one game, winner take all scenario: a sprained ankle, foul trouble and/or an ejection could tilt the balance. Miami entered this series as the favorite and the favorite is never happy to be extended to a seventh game; think of it this way: would you have a better chance beating LeBron James one on one in a game played to seven points or in a game played to one point? The Pacers have not only shortened the series but they have demonstrated that they can consistently exploit certain matchup advantages to offset James' individual brilliance.
James played well in game six--29 points, seven rebounds, six assists--but he did not take over for a key stretch the way that he did in game five. Paul George pretty much matched James shot for shot (28 points), rebound for rebound (eight) and assist for assist (five). TNT's Charles Barkley had a great line about George: "We're not going to give out the superstar label after one week. We're not ESPN." Barkley is right--but if George equals his game six performance (not just the numbers but the impact) in game seven then he will have taken a big step on the path to rightly being considered a superstar.
Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh combined for 15 points on 4-19 field goal shooting, their lowest collective one game scoring total since becoming teammates in 2010. Bosh is playing out of position at center, a tactic that works for the Heat against most teams but is not turning out so well against the Pacers; Bosh is being physically worn down from banging against bigger bodies on defense and then he is being misused/underutilized on offense, spotting up for long jumpers instead of relying on his mobility to drive to the hoop and/or attack from the post with spin moves/athleticism. Yes, Bosh should be expected to provide more than he has provided this series but the Miami coaching staff has not helped Bosh by the way that they are deploying him at either end of the court.
It is fascinating to watch Dwyane Wade struggle without the explosive leaping ability that played such a huge role in his earlier success; now everyone can see that he is closer to 6-2 than 6-4--has Wade ever looked smaller than he does now when he spends more time on the ground than in the air?--and that without his hops Wade often looks like just another guy. I do not know if Wade's problems stem from injury and/or represent permanent, age-related decline but I do know that what we are seeing now confirms that I was always right to insist that Wade does not belong in the same category with Kobe Bryant (let's not even bring up Michael Jordan): Bryant is several inches taller than Wade and Bryant is a threat to score from anywhere on the court without having to rely on jumping over people--and that is why Bryant averaged 27.3 ppg in 2012-13 at the age of 34 (the 31 year old Wade is averaging 14.5 ppg versus the Pacers after averaging 21.2 ppg during the regular season). Bryant could still get to the hoop and finish even without dunking, while in the Indiana series Wade seems to miss every shot close to the hoop that he cannot dunk. Wade is not a great finisher at the rim like Bryant or Tony Parker now or like Rod Stickland back in the day (even a young Strickland rarely, if ever, dunked); Wade is an athlete--or, was an athlete--who could outjump and overpower much bigger men. Bryant has played with a bad ankle, a bad knee and/or torn ligaments in various fingers and he was still able to dominate as a number one option even when his mobility and/or ballhandling were compromised by those injuries; Wade deserves credit for trying to play through his current problems--but those problems are also revealing the inherent limitations that have always existed in his game but that were shrouded a bit by his tremendous athletic ability.
After LeBron James' infamous "Decision" I acknowledged that--barring injuries--the Heat would be perennial contenders but I expressed skepticism that the Heat would win multiple championships: I expected Wade to decline soon and I thought that the Heat would lack size and depth because of spending so much money to pay the Big Three. Both of those factors have come into play in this series and could very well prove to be Miami's downfall in game seven; even if James explodes for 40 points that may not be enough to push Miami over the top if Wade is a non-factor and if no other Heat players step up.
All of that being said, the Heat have already won a championship in the Big Three era and they are just five wins away from capturing their second title. They will enjoy the comforts of home in game seven and they will welcome back Chris Andersen, the suspended big man whose energy was sorely missed in game six. Miami's role players will likely play better, while Indiana's role players will likely play worse. All of those reasons, plus the fact that James will be the best player on the court, make Miami the logical pick--but if the Pacers stay focused and execute their game plan then they are absolutely capable of winning this game: the Heat players will not get bigger, so if the Pacers force the ball inside, cut down on their turnovers and prevent the Heat from easily driving to the hoop then the outcome could hinge on one last second score/stop.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:46 AM