Saturday, May 17, 2014

This Is It (Eastern Conference Finals Preview)

This is it.
We've known all year what two teams would be here. Yet I, as well as many others, started having doubts. After the Pacers' game 5 loss to the Hawks, I was convinced: Indiana and Miami are not going to see each other in this year's playoffs, despite how inevitable it seemed at midseason. But then the Pacers managed to grit out two straight wins against Atlanta to move on to the Eastern Conference Semifinals and one round away from a rematch with the team that sent them home the year before. Four wins away from a rematch with Lebron James and the Miami Heat.

But then it looked, once again, as if they would not even get a chance to try and put out the Heat. Lucky for them, after a 102-96 loss to the Wizards in game 1, Roy Hibbert ripped off a monster two-game stretch in which he averaged 21 points, 7 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks on 16-of 22 shooting. Paul George, the heir to Lebron's "throne," erupted in game 4 for 39 points to give Indy a 3-1 series lead that they would not relinquish. Now, after Miami handily defeated Brooklyn in 5 games, it is the series that we have anticipated since before the season started.

I originally picked Indiana to win this series-for-the-history-books, but flip-flopped between them and Miami to reign in the East all year. Now, it's finally time. It's time to see whether the Pacers can use their home-court advantage to BEAT THE HEAT. It's time to see whether Dwayne Wade and Lance Stephenson will cancel each other out. It's time to see whether Roy Hibbert can dominate in the paint. And it's time to see who moves on to the NBA Finals.

We know who the NBA wants in the Finals, you can't watch these teams play (especially in Miami) and not know that. But the NBA doesn't always get what they desire, they just always get it when it comes to the Heat. Stiff-necked Heat-wagons who don't believe me, allow me to enlighten you: what do you think the NBA would rather have? Indiana, the smash-mouth, grind-it-out, team that is held together by the strings of immense toughness and defense? Indiana, the 17th best offensive team in the league, a team that struggles to get a shot off and wins games by holding their opponents in the low eighties? That Indiana team playing San Antonio/Oklahoma City in the Finals?

Or would the NBA rather have Miami, the team looking for a three-peat, the team that has the best player in the world, the team that has more bandwagon fans than true fans, the team that makes ratings go sky-high. Which team do you think the NBA would rather have? It's not rocket science to notice that playing in Miami gives the Heat a more-than-significant advantage. So for the Pacers, it's not 5-on-5, but 5-on-8. Because, come on, does a casual basketball fan want to see an 83-82 slug-fest or a 116-115 shootout in the Finals?

Last year one of the main reasons Indiana lost in game 7 of the Conference Finals was because the game was played in Miami, where the Heat feed off of the adrenaline of their "fans" and the helping-hands of the "zebras." That's not to say that the Heat weren't a better team last year, they were. But this year they're a year older, and with last year's core intact, a year older. The Shane Battier from the Grizzlies is not walking through that door. The Ray Allen from the Celtics is not walking through that door. And neither is the Dwayne Wade from the 2005 Finals.

While most of the world is picking Miami, if the Pacers play their best basketball, it's theirs to lose. Unfortunately, they've gotten into a habit of not playing their best [or even near their best] basketball, especially at home. Owning a modest 8-5 record so far in the playoffs, the Pacers have just a 3-4 record at home in the playoffs, after going 35-6 at home during the regular season. But it's not just the playoffs, the Pacers' rough stretch
dates all the way back to midseason. After a scorching-hot  41-13 record over the first-half of the year, Indiana stopped doing everything they did well. They stopped getting hustle offensive-rebounds [offensive-rebounds will no doubt play a big part in this series,] they stopped playing unselfish, team-basketball, and biggest of all, their defense stopped being the stingy, we're-tougher-than-you group they were over the first half of the season.

Players such as Paul George and Lance Stephenson started going out of their way to fill up their own stat sheet. Stephenson and newly-acquired Forward Evan Turner got into a fistfight and had to be separated by teammates. Roy Hibbert publicly called some players "selfish." And no one knew how to fix their problems. Most people think that this semi-collapse was caused by the Pacers trading away veteran-leader Danny Granger at the trade-deadline. I think it was a combination of three things.

One, The Trade. As I mentioned earlier, Indiana traded Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers for Evan Turner right before the trade-deadline. Losing Granger, a glue-guy, was a crushing blow to a Pacers team that had been guided by Granger's experience and leadership. But this alone would not have been enough to make the Pacers stagger to a near .500 record over the season's second half.

Two, The Release. To make the trade for Turner work salary-wise, the Pacers also had to take on the contract of Center Lavoy Allen, who has seen little action since becoming a Pacer. To do so, this meant Indiana had to release a player. Guard Orlando Johnson was the scapegoat. And while Johnson got most of his minutes while Granger was out with injury, he was still a solid member of the team, and losing him hurt.

Three, The Injury. Backup Point Guard C.J. Watson, another veteran-leader, was ruled out with injury at around the same time Granger was traded and Johnson was released. When he finally returned, Indiana was already struggling, and on the brink of mediocrity. Then Watson injured his hamstring. He ended up not returning until shortly before the playoffs. Losing three guys at the same time, while gaining two new ones at the same time was the main reason why the Pacers limped to a 15-13 record over the final half of the season.

The Heat, meanwhile, have had the worst regular-season of the Big 3 era. That's not to say it was bad, just mediocre by their standards. They too, like Indiana, struggled during the final stretch of the season, and staggered into the playoffs. But unlike Indiana, they have not looked vulnerable so far in these playoffs, with a dominant 8-1 record through the first two rounds.

We now know that, despite all the rest he had this season, Dwayne Wade's knee is never going to be the way it once was, and that he and Lance Stephenson basically cancel each other out most of the time. The thing Miami needs to do to win this series is to pressure Indiana's ball-handlers, especially Point Guard George Hill, who is naturally a Shooting Guard and has weak ball-handling for his position. Pressure is one thing the Pacers do not like, and they have shown that by turning the ball over way above the league-average when pressured, especially when they play the Heat. If Miami is forcing turnovers, or the Pacers are simply being carelessly sloppy, there is no way Indiana takes this series. The same thing goes for if the Heat can not get the three-ball to go down, and at least "contain" the fearsome duo of David West. If Indiana is does not have a signifigant advantage on rebounds, and their bench does not at the very least stay nearly as productive as Miami's, they may be able to make this series competitive, but will not be able to win it.

These teams don't like each other, and they would each like nothing more than to send the other one home. Case in point: Pacers Guard Lance Stephenson recently said, "I think his [Dwayne Wade's] knee is messed up, so I've got to be extra aggressive. My plan is to make him run. Make his knee flare up or something. I'll do anything as much as possible." This is going to be a great series, and it would be shocking if it didn't go to 7 games. Whoever takes game 1 will likely win the series, and I see Indiana barely winning it on Sunday, 88-86, with more effort and anger than the Old Heat. It's time for Indiana to realize their goal of BEATing THE HEAT, fully and finally remove themselves from the Malice at the Palace, and advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since a guy named Reggie Miller retired all at the same time. Oh yeah, this Indiana ready. 
Prediction: Pacers in Seven  

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