The Heat postseason thus far has been a run of false alarms and manufactured drama. The intensity and pressure associated with the playoffs has been largely missing. Miami has sailed carefree, still waiting for a real challenge.
The first round brought Charlotte, a big underdog, sure, but it was the playoffs, and Heat players were talking up the Bobcats’ Al Jefferson as if he were the greatest Jefferson since Thomas, remember? After an erratic regular season that ended in an 11-14 malaise the final 25 games, some thought Miami vulnerable. You wondered. “The season starts now!” went the theme.
No worry. Heat sweep.
The next round brought Brooklyn and the challenge seemed genuine, daunting. The Nets had star power, and the addition of old rivals Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett gave the Men in Black what Heat stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade respectfully called “championship DNA.” This round would test Miami. Seriously, this time: “The season starts now!”
No again, it turned out. The series was contentious. It was personal. But 4-1 is 4-1.
Now, finally, inevitably, it’s Indiana in the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals — with Game 1 Sunday up there — and we’re supposed to believe, again, that the challenge is great. That Miami’s run to a three-peat championship is in peril. Once more, and try to be convincing this time: “The season starts now!”
Sorry, Pacers fans, but for Miami it looks like the genuine threat, the actual risk of dethroning, will wait for the NBA Finals against San Antonio or Oklahoma City — likelier the Spurs, now that the Thunder endures a huge loss with Serge Ibaka’s injury.
“Yes but Indiana would have the home court in a Game 7!”
This series won’t go that far.
Indiana, once 33-7, has spent a long time being mediocre and sometimes worse. Chemistry issues ripped the team’s fabric. Coach Frank Vogel was fighting for his job. And, contrary to the Heat, the Pacers have not found their stride in the postseason, first needing seven games to survive a losing-record Atlanta, then needing six to take out Washington.
“It’s night-and-day different,” coach-turned-ESPN analyst P.J. Carlesimo said of the Heat-Pacers series. “Indiana was the best team in the league by a big margin and have just gone south. And I think Miami is playing better than they have all year. You can’t be as inconsistent as [the Pacers] have been and then flip the switch. You have to be at the top of your game to beat the Heat.”
The word “inconsistent” flatters Indiana these days. It beat Washington three times in a row, then get out-rebounded by an NBA record margin of 62-23. Paul George scores 39 one game, then shoots 9 for 26 over the next two. Roy Hibbert scores 28 points in one game against the Wizards, and averages 9.2 in the other five.
George is a leading scorer shooting 42 percent from the field. Hibbert has shown a propensity to utterly disappear, quite a trick for a man who is 7-2. David West might need a huge series offensively for the Pacers to have a chance.
Meanwhile, LeBron is having a playoffs-MVP-caliber postseason, Miami is as healthy as it has been all season, and the Heat also enjoys an advantage in bench/depth this series.
There is a reason that No. 2 seed Miami is even money, 1-1 betting odds to win a third consecutive championship, while the No. 1 seed Pacers are the final four’s long-shot at 10-1.
The reason is that belief in the Pacers right now relies on past, not present.
Yes, Indiana matches up well and plays Miami tough. Or has.
In last year’s Eastern Conference finals, the Heat needed seven games to get past the Pacers. The year before, it took a rally and six.
These Pacers are not as good, though. A three-months-plus funk has shown us that. And Hibbert, especially, must prove he has the confidence and mental toughness to be the same player who has tended to be a thorn for the Heat.
Miami is hauling out the heavy artillery for this series, tailoring its rotation to Indiana by going big against the Pacers’ frontcourt of Hibbert and West.
Udonis Haslem, who has defended Hibbert well, is expected to replace Shane Battier in the starting five. There is a chance we might even have a Greg Oden sighting; after all, the Heat signed the 7-foot Oden mainly with Hibbert in mind, and the team has brought him along slowly all season with the idea he might be ready now.
Oden has not played at all in this postseason.
“I want to be an impact player,” he said last Sunday between games in Brooklyn. “It’s hard not to be.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra said of deploying Oden, “I won’t hesitate if there’s a need for him.” But you sense taking Oden out of mothballs at this point might require desperation.
Hibbert’s rim defending always is portrayed as a hindrance to LeBron’s low-post game and overall success, but evidence is sketchy.
James averaged 29 points and took 54 free throws in last year’s seven-game playoff series. In this year’s four regular-season meetings, LeBron averaged 28.8 points and reached the free-throw line 41 times. If that’s struggling, a Miami fan might say, “Struggle on!”
One team in this series is the pedigreed champion, has the best player, and is playing its best.
The other team in this series is the wanna-be contender not playing its best.
Heat in six games. And five would not surprise.