It was a long, strange trip, but here we are with the Eastern Conference Finals rematch we all thought would happen once Derrick Rose went down with another knee injury in late November. It’s Pacers-Heat IV, and absolutely everything is on the line.
For Indiana, it’s a chance to shake off a post-February stretch rife with internal turmoil and strangely vacant performances late in the regular season and occasionally in the playoffs. It’s a chance to move on to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2000, when Reggie Miller, Jalen Rose and Rik Smits fell in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, who completed the first step in what became the NBA’s first three-peat since Michael Jordan’s second run with the Bulls.
For Miami, it’s a chance to ascend into basketball immortality. Eleven teams have repeated as NBA champions since the Boston Celtics completed their run of 10 titles in 11 years in 1969, but only five outfits in the 68-year history of the league – George Mikan’s Lakers (1952-54), Bill Russell’s Celtics (1959-66), Jordan’s Bulls (1991-93, 1996-98) and the Shaq-Kobe Lakers (2000-02) – have captured three consecutive crowns. The Heat’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can not only join one of sports’ most exclusive guilds, but with a series victory over Indiana, Miami can be the first squad to qualify for four straight Finals since Larry Bird – the architect of these Pacers and Indiana’s coach in 2000 – guided the Celtics to four consecutive Finals appearances from 1984 to 1987.
We’ll get to the stats in a second, but sometimes sports really do boil down to the same speech every coach across the globe gives to his or her team before an important game: How bad do you want it?
Do the Pacers want it bad enough that they can string together 10-14 days of consistent basketball, something they haven’t done since February? Can Paul George summon enough energy to be the catalyst Indiana desperately needs on offense as well as adequately defending James? Can Roy Hibbert fully regain the confidence he might have lost when James flagrantly elbowed the seven-footer in the jaw on March 26?
Do the Heat want it bad enough to exhaust themselves through another deep playoff run, one that has seen them play 76 playoff games since the Big Three formed prior to the 2010-11 season? Is James willing to put Miami on his back – something he did over long stretches during last season’s East and NBA Finals – to further chip away at Jordan’s legacy and garner championship No. 3 at age 29? (Jordan was 29 at the end of his first three-peat). With possible free agency pending this summer for the Big Three, have James, Wade and Bosh secretly agreed to re-up for more championship runs, or is this their final ride?
It promises to be an enthralling series. Here are a few notes and numbers to keep in mind:
* Indiana’s season-long goal was to be the East’s No. 1 seed and earn the homecourt advantage that comes with that designation. Having accomplished that objective, the Pacers are 3-4 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse this postseason, while Miami is 3-1 away from home during the playoffs and 6-4 on the road the last two postseasons.
* Don’t bet against the Heat in home close-out games. Since the Big Three era began, Miami is 8-0 at AmericanAirlines Arena in possible series-clinching contests, including a 23-point dusting of Indiana in Game 7 of the 2013 East Finals.
* The Pacers’ size may cause the Heat problems on offense, but the numbers show Indiana isn’t benefitting from its interior advantage offensively. During the regular season, the Pacers’ offensive rebounding rate was 24.9 percent, 21st in the NBA. In four regular season games vs. Miami this year, Indiana’s offensive rebound/total rebound splits were 9/34 (26.5 percent), 6/30 (20 percent), 11/26 (42.3 percent) and 5/26 (19.2 percent).
* The blue and gold’s offensive rebounding numbers haven’t improved in the playoffs. Among teams to play at least seven playoff games, the Pacers own the second-worst offensive rebounding rate (19 percent) behind Miami, a team that traditionally eschews offensive rebounding – the Heat have ranked 27th and 29th in offensive rebounding rate the past two regular seasons – in favor of setting up its halfcourt defense.
* Despite its struggles, Indiana still owns the playoffs’ best defense (96.8 defensive rating) and in Hibbert, they have the only player capable of steadily ensuring a verticality rule-protected dragnet is kept around the restricted area when James is on the floor.
Prediction: Miami in seven. Those who say the Pacers are specifically constructed to beat the Heat are being imprecise – Indiana’s starting five is tailored to topple Miami, with George and Lance Stephenson able to check James and Wade, and Hibbert acting as Godzilla at the rim. But, the Pacers’ bench is dreadful, the entire team turns the ball over too much and they haven’t done enough to shake the ‘mentally fragile’ label. And, Indiana doesn’t have James – the world’s best player, and quite simply, that’s what it boils down to. If James is going down in his pursuit of history, it’s going to be in a Finals rematch with the San Antonio Spurs, not to a Pacers’ unit still lacking enough pieces to dethrone him.
Grant Freking is a sportswriter for the Daily Reporter. Contact him at (317) 477-3230 or at email@example.com.
NBA Conference Finals
(Best-of-7; x-if necessary)
Indiana vs. Miami
TV: Game 1, ABC; Games 2-7, ESPN
Sunday, May 18: Miami at Indiana, 3:30 p.m.
Tuesday, May 20: Miami at Indiana, 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, May 24: Indiana at Miami, 8:30 p.m.
Monday, May 26: Indiana at Miami, 8:30 p.m.
x-Wednesday, May 28: Miami at Indiana, 8:30 p.m.
x-Friday, May 30: Indiana at Miami, 8:30 p.m. x-Sunday, June 1: Miami at Indiana, 8:30 p.m.
Oklahoma City vs. San Antonio
TV: All games, TNT
Monday, May 19: Oklahoma City at San Antonio, 9 p.m.
Wednesday, May 21: Oklahoma City at San Antonio, 9 p.m.
Sunday, May 25: San Antonio at Oklahoma City, 8:30 p.m.
Tuesday, May 27: San Antonio at Oklahoma City, 9 p.m.
x-Thursday, May 29: Oklahoma City at San Antonio, 9 p.m.
x-Saturday, May 31: San Antonio at Oklahoma City, 8:30 p.m.
x-Monday, June 2: Oklahoma City at San Antonio, 9 p.m.