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Sunday, June 02, 2013

Heat's Game Seven Showdown Versus Pacers Will be a Defining Moment in the Big Three Era

No 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:46 AM

10 comments

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10 Comments:

At Sunday, June 02, 2013 4:34:00 AM, Anonymous yogi said...

How many teams have won a game seven on their opponents floor? That has to be a very small number.
The Pacers do not have the mental toughness to do that. I expect them to be blown out.

 
At Sunday, June 02, 2013 5:56:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yogi:

Seventh game road wins are uncommon in the NBA. After the 76ers beat the Celtics in the Boston Garden in 1982, no road team won a seventh game until 1995 when Houston won at Phoenix and Indiana won at New York. Recently, road teams have had a bit more success, including Chicago at Brooklyn in the 2013 playoffs.

As I mentioned in the article, history and logic suggest that the Heat should be considered the favorites--but the Pacers have the necessary tools to win if they play the right way.

While it is possible that the Heat could hit on all cylinders and blow out the Pacers, I do not expect that to happen based on what we have seen thus far.

 
At Sunday, June 02, 2013 8:40:00 AM, Anonymous Ben Weaver said...

I wouldn't say that Game 7 road wins are uncommon in the NBA, at least compared to how often road teams win generally. According to Wikipedia, 10 of 36 Game 7's since 2000 have been won by the road team. I'd say that the better team usually wins Game 7 regardless of where it is played, it's just that it's more often that the better team had a better record during the regular season. It is the rare playoff series indeed that I thought to myself, "but for home court advantage, this team would not have advanced".

 
At Sunday, June 02, 2013 6:14:00 PM, Blogger dmills said...

The lakers won a game 7 at Sacramento years ago.

And to further David's article how about this little tidbit. There was an article today posted on ESPN's NBA website where Dwyane Wade was complaining about a lack of touches, and how one guy can't be dominating the ball the way that Lebron has been doing because it throws everyone else out of rhythm.

Kobe Bryant says hi Lebron...

 
At Sunday, June 02, 2013 7:09:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Ben:

You are correct that since 2000 it has become relatively more common for the road team to win in game seven than it used to be, though 26/36 (.722 winning percentage) is still slanted heavily toward the home team.

Overall, though, the home team has won game seven 89 out of 112 times in NBA history, a .795 winning percentage. During the regular season, home teams tend to post roughly a .600 winning percentage, so statistically speaking it is less common to win a game seven on the road than it is to win a regular season road game.

Perhaps "uncommon" means different things to different people but, from my standpoint, something that has happened roughly one out of five times in NBA history is uncommon, particularly since it happens twice as often (two out of five times) in the regular season.

If a series is extended to seven games it is reasonable to assume that the teams are fairly evenly matched--or that injuries/suspensions/other factors have made them evenly matched even if they did not appear to be evenly matched on paper--and thus I think that home court advantage does matter; in any situation with two evenly matched opponents, any advantage that one side can obtain--however slight--can make a difference.

 
At Sunday, June 02, 2013 7:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Dmills:

Yes, the Lakers did win a game seven on the road and, as Ben noted, that was one of 10 game seven road wins that have happened since 2000.

Despite all of the talk about LeBron being a pass first player, throughout his career he has been a dominant scorer and he has tended to dribble the ball/hold the ball more than Kobe; Kobe tends to get the ball and go straight into his move, while LeBron uses up more of the shot clock (and, yes, I am sure that someone can search YouTube and find plenty of exceptions for both players but I am talking about the general pattern, not the exceptions). LeBron is a great passer when he decides to pass but it has always amused me that so many people think that it would be easier to play with LeBron than it would be to play with Kobe. A lot of players have had their best and most efficient seasons playing with Kobe--from the sublime (Shaq) to the ridiculous (Kwame/Smush)--while the list of players who have had their best seasons playing alongside LeBron is much shorter. Wade and Bosh had high regular season field goal percentages this year but that is an aberration for LeBron's teammates during the course of his career, particularly considering the long list of guys (Shaq, Gasol, Odom, Kwame, Smush, Ariza, Farmar, Vujacic, Shannon Brown, etc.) who performed much better playing with Kobe than they did before and/or after they played with Kobe.

 
At Sunday, June 02, 2013 9:10:00 PM, Anonymous Bill Smith said...

To me, this game 7 is not about Lebron's legacy, it's about the respective legacies of Wade and Bosh. I accept that both Bosh and Wade both injured to varying degrees, however contrast their demeanour with that of David West who was suffering from the flu last game. West's skills were diminished but he found a way to contribute and clearly showed the desire to win in that game. I didn't see that same fire from Wade and Bosh. Lebron clearly has that competitive fire - witness the halftime huddle from a couple of games ago.

If Bosh and/or Wade contribute at 70% of their regular season output then I would expect the Heat to be clear winners, however based on the last few games, it's unclear whether that will happen.

 
At Monday, June 03, 2013 3:27:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Bill:

Seventh games affect the legacies of all of the players but the players who have the greatest responsibilities are the ones who will receive the most credit or the most blame. LeBron James is a four-time MVP; he cannot win or lose the game on his own but he will have more to do with the outcome of this game than any other single player.

Bosh is being asked to play out of position at both ends of the court; if he has a great game seven performance this could enhance his legacy but it would not be correct to blame him if the Heat lose. Wade is an injured and/or declining player who has never been at the level that James currently occupies. James left Cleveland with the stated goal of winning multiple titles, so the pressure is on him to win these kinds of games.

 
At Monday, June 03, 2013 2:43:00 PM, Blogger Jordan Ikeda said...

Dwyane Wade is one of the most overhyped players in maybe NBA history. Yes, he had an epic, whistle-happy four games against the Mavs nearly seven years ago. But the man has played in a total of 665 career games in his 10 seasons.

While the pinnacle of his career (2008-09) was arguably higher than any point of Bryant's career (in terms of pure and advanced #s), the fact that he routinely plays only 80 percent of each season, should absolutely be held against him. Your thoughts?

 
At Monday, June 03, 2013 3:00:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jordan:

I think that Wade has been a very good player but not as great as many people have suggested and that now he is a declining player.

I disagree that his peak was better than Kobe Bryant's--and Wade certainly has not been nearly as durable as Bryant.

 

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