Can the Pacers Dethrone the Heat?The Indiana Pacers pushed the Miami Heat to seven games in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals and they have beaten the Heat in two of their three 2013-14 regular season encounters. The Pacers have openly stated their belief that if they secure homecourt advantage then they will dethrone the two-time defending NBA champion Heat. The reality, though, is that a great team will usually win at least one game on the road during a long playoff series, so homecourt advantage does not guarantee anything other than the comfort of playing game seven in front of a supportive crowd. If these two teams face each other in the postseason, the outcome of the series will be determined less by homecourt advantage and more by two factors: (1) the health of key players and (2) which team imposes its style on the other team.
Indiana's 84-83 home win over Miami on March 26 reinforced and/or revealed several things about these teams:
1) LeBron James is, first and foremost, a big-time scorer; he shredded the NBA's best defense for 38 points on 11-19 field goal shooting despite receiving very little offensive help from Dwyane Wade (15 points on 6-11 field goal shooting before leaving the game with a hamstring injury) and Chris Bosh (eight points on 3-11 field goal shooting). James is the best all-around player in the NBA but his primary skill set advantage, by far, is his ability to score; the Heat would not have won the last two NBA titles if James had not led the league in playoff scoring in 2012 (30.3 ppg) and if he had not ranked fourth in 2013 playoff scoring (25.9 ppg).
2) Greg Oden may be able to clog up the middle as a help defender (two blocked shots in just six minutes) but he does not have the necessary mobility and/or guile to slow down Roy Hibbert in a one on one matchup. The aging and undersized Udonis Haslem did a much better job against Hibbert than Oden did.
3) The Pacers' best chance to beat the Heat is to slow the game down, avoid open court turnovers and pound the ball into Hibbert and David West in the paint--but the Pacers do not have a top notch point guard who can control the tempo of the game and their top two scorers are wing players, so it is not easy or natural for Indiana to do what is necessary to beat Miami. The Pacers have the right personnel to challenge Miami--big men who can score in the paint and mobile, lengthy wing defenders who can challenge James and Wade--and they play the right way in stretches but they can be tempted into taking bad shots and/or committing careless turnovers. In contrast, the Heat can run their offense through either James or Wade and thus they are less apt to stray from what they do best.
4) Lance Stephenson is a versatile and valuable player but he is also a hothead who is prone to making bad decisions that could cost the Pacers; when he foolishly got ejected late in the fourth quarter it almost cost the Pacers the game and they can ill afford for him to exercise such poor judgment in the playoffs.
5) The Pacers are young, talented and hungry. They are clearly a viable threat to the Heat--but playoff series are often decided by the transcendent greatness of an elite player: James has demonstrated that he can fill that role and carry his team to championships, while Paul George--Indiana's best player--has not yet shown that he can take that step from All-Star to elite player.
Many pundits declared that Indiana's win all but clinched the East's top seed but the Heat have won two in a row while the Pacers have lost two in a row since their Wednesday encounter, so Indiana's "big" victory may very well turn out to be just a footnote--and that is why it is not wise to draw broad conclusions on the basis of one game. Winning that "big," nationally televised game does not mean much for the Pacers if they cannot take care of business in the "small" games, because all of the games count the same in the standings.
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant cemented their legacies by leading their teams to "three-peat" title runs; Jordan won three championships in a row on two separate occasions, while Bryant captured a "three-peat" early in his career while playing alongside Shaquille O'Neal before leading the L.A. Lakers to three straight NBA Finals and back to back championships near the end of his career. So far, at the championship level James has only matched what Bryant did past his prime and James has not come close to equaling the overall body of work compiled by Jordan and Bryant. No team has made it to the Finals in four consecutive years since the 1984-87 Boston Celtics, so if James carries the Heat to a fourth Finals appearance in a row he will have accomplished something that even Jordan and Bryant failed to do--and if James authors another dominant postseason performance while leading the Heat to a third straight NBA title then it will be valid to compare James with the all-time greats not just on the basis of his individual talents/accomplishments but also on the basis of his ability to elevate a team to the championship level for an extended period of time.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:04 AM