Pacers top Heat, give blueprint for success
As of Tuesday night, only two teams in the Eastern Conference of the NBA had winning records: the defending champion Miami Heat and their Eastern Conference Finals foes from a year ago, the Indiana Pacers. It pretty much goes without saying that the Eastern Conference is historically bad this year.
Reading Bill Simmons’ Grantland article “The NBA’s E-League” from last Friday will get you up to speed on just how bad this conference has been.
At any rate, the Heat and the Pacers played a game in Indiana Tuesday night that resembled May and June much more than it did December.
These two teams are the class of an otherwise putrid conference this year.
With Derrick Rose sitting on the couch, Jason Kidd finding new ways every night to screw up a team with a near $90 million luxury tax, and Mike Woodson failing to shake any magic out of his permanently-colored goatee, Miami
and Indiana are essentially locked into a second consecutive Eastern Conference Finals showdown come May.
If you remember their heavyweight bout last May, you might recall that these two teams went seven games.
You might also recall that Roy Hibbert was having his breakout postseason, Paul George was a budding superstar, and Indiana could, at times, stifle the otherwise magnificent Miami offense.
And you probably remember how Paul George came up well short in Game 7, whereas LeBron scored 32 and looked unstoppable.
Well, after watching the Beasts of the East play Tuesday night, I must say: The tides have turned.
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. C’mon, man, it’s just a regular season game in December. They were playing in Indiana, Wade was coming off knee troubles, and Miami was playing their fourth road game in a week.
Oh, and LeBron is still the best player on the planet.
I understand all of that. Frankly, you’re right on all fronts.
Still, there’s a different kind of feel to this matchup this year. The Pacers learned a lot from the Conference Finals last May. Paul George is certainly more controlled now – even if he still tends to look into the stands after making
well-timed threes. Roy Hibbert continues to improve and is really coming into his own as a guy who can go 20-10 when you really need him to do so.
David West provides veteran leadership and compliments Hibbert as the Pacers’ one-two punch on the inside. In fact, the Pacers’ inside game is what allows them to not only compete with Miami, but beat them – and they know
this, too, now that they’ve overcome the heartbreak in May.
On Tuesday night, Indiana showcased all of these improvements. George was very quiet in the first half, but the bigs for Indiana kept them hanging around.
A hard-nosed three-point play by Lance Stephenson just before halftime cut Miami’s first half lead to seven, and I immediately got the feeling going into halftime that Indiana would come back stronger in the second half. And, well,
they really did.
Indiana’s defense tightened up, George shook off the slow start and got hot, and the Heat were forced to play the way the Pacers wanted them to – slow, methodical, and inside. Hibbert finished with 24 points, while West had 17.
Again and again Miami would play great defense for the length of the shot clock, only to be outplayed on the inside at the end of a possession.
On the flip side, the Indiana defense was tenacious, holding Miami to 43 percent from the field and a mere 19 percent from downtown, where the likes of Ray Allen and Shane Battier have wreaked havoc during Miami’s ongoing
In essence, Indiana beat Miami on Tuesday night because they’ve studied and learned how to beat the defending champions. The secret is surely out now if it wasn’t already before: you beat Miami by hammering them inside on
offense and forcing them inside on defense. This style of play takes the Heat out of their up-tempo rhythm and comfort zone on the perimeter.
Indiana is the one team in the Eastern Conference that has the talent inside that can make Miami uncomfortable, and their leading scorer is in the process of making “the leap.” Oh, and the Heat aren’t getting any taller anytime
soon. They may have the best player in the league, but they don’t have the best team anymore.
As far as I’m concerned, Indiana does – at least in the Eastern Conference.
Unless Miami finds a way to play taller than they stand, as John Wooden would’ve exhorted them to do, they might be en route to a rude awakening when they play Indiana for a spot in the Finals come this spring.