The Miami Heat haven’t lost two consecutive games since January. As soon as they took a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals, this surely spelled doom for the Indiana Pacers, who would have to accomplish this exact feat (or rather impose it) on them to make their first NBA finals since the days of Rik Smits, Reggie Miller (who still looks like he could drop 20), Chris Mullin and Jalen Rose. In case you forgot, the Pacers used to be really good, although their last NBA finals appearance was 1999-2000, their first season at the former Conseco Fieldhouse.
Since then, they’ve been consistently on the playoff bubble; their worst finish is 10th in the East. What they have been doing in the past few seasons, on the sly, is building a nicely balanced team that has coped well with the temporary loss of leading scorer Danny Granger. In particular,
John Paul George and Ringo, who was drafted in 2010 out of Fresno State, has become an All-Star and one of the toughest matchups in the entire NBA.
It’s weird to say this about a team that is still in with a shout of making the NBA finals, but I think it is fair to say that as a team, Miami has struggled badly, with the notable exception of LeBron James. Dwyane Wade looks a spent force. Chris Bosh has never consistently reproduced his Toronto form for the Heat having perhaps become too comfortable in the third man role. He has shot the ball from three well this series and last, but that is no replacement for an effective inside presence on offense, exemplified in former Georgetown Hoya and current opponent Roy Hibbert.
The Pacers are not deep. Tyler Hansbrough, Ian Mahinmi, DJ Augustin, Sam Young, Gerald Green. These are hardly names that strike fear into opponents (although Hansbrough seems to have sufficiently wound up Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem at different points in his career). But what they lack in depth, they make up for in strength across the starting five.
Meanwhile, Miami have depth, but no consistency outside of LeBron. Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers have not played as well as they did against Chicago. The aforementioned Wade seems to have entered the Allen Iverson zone, from which there is no escape. When rim-attacking guards start to decline, the drop off can be spectacular. Wade has no range, which he has managed to work around given his extraordinary athleticism. With his athleticism hampered by a series of injuries and, perhaps, long lasting knee issues, he is little more than a spectator – or, worse, a missed layup waiting to happen. A couple of blocked shots late on in game 6 suggested that his decline may not be terminal, but his performances throughout the post season have only been vintage in flashes.
The Miami gunners have been a major problem. Mike Miller has offered 100% shooting from three, but that only totals 9 points. Ray Allen is 7-24. Shane Battier, mismatched on defense, is 2-15. Miami only has one 100-point scorer in the series: James. Indiana has three. The disappointing Wade is Miami’s second top scorer with 87.
Whoever comes out of the East, and I picked Miami at the start of the series, will have to face a well-rested San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs were convincing against Memphis, particularly their own “big three” (the must have basketball accessory of 2013 is three star players – interestingly, while Miami may have started the idea, so disappointing has Bosh been, you could argue that they are the one side who lacks a big three) of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and a revitalised Tim Duncan. One wonders how either Eastern team will be able to beat the Spurs. Obviously Miami would have home court advantage, whereas Indiana would not, but the Spurs seem to be able to match up well with Indiana inside and out, whilst also being too big for the Heat’s undersized inside players.
The Spurs beat the Pacers by 22 in San Antonio and 7 in Indiana this season whereas Miami won three times (once in preseason) against San Antonio, all by single figures and including the infamous “Spurs B team” game when Coach Popovich sent his stars home at the end of a grueling road trip. Clearly they are a formidable prospect for Indiana, who will be conscious of the way that the Spurs were able to negate Zach Randolph and the possibility that they have formulated a similar plan for David West. The Spurs also have the advantage of being able to alternate Tim Duncan and Thiago Splitter on Roy Hibbert, a luxury few other teams have. Miami, meanwhile, would previously simply have run the Spurs, but that strategy depends heavily on the health of Wade.
The key, in the Eastern finals game 7 at least, will be LeBron. He has an ability to impose his will on games like few others in sports. Indeed, when he does turn it on, as he did in game 5, you have to wonder why he doesn’t do it more often. If he decides to lead Miami to a win and gets enough help from his outside shooters, the Heat will prevail.
Then the prospect of the San Antonio Spurs becomes a reality.