For three years now, the Miami Heat have owned the Eastern Conference come playoff time. That is not to say it has always been easy for them, as classic contests against the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls will testify. Last year, however, it was the turn of the Indiana Pacers to try and dethrone the Heat juggernaut in the East, and they came closer than any team who had previously tried to slay the beast. More than that, it seemed like they genuinely gave both Miami and those watching a fright of sorts. Yes they did end up losing that seven-game series, but had they won, people wouldn’t have been surprised. This year it is clear the Pacers are a more experienced and well-oiled machine, but the question is, will they be good enough to beat the Heat?
A word on Miami first. This season has been a bit of a struggle for them, and they have not dominated on a near nightly basis like we know they can. Their performances have been quite similar to the first year they came together and got off to a rocky start, only to come good later on it the year. There is no doubt this is a great team, verging on legendary dynasty, but they need to up their game now at the halfway point in the campaign. It has often been said that the great teams don’t “turn it on” until after the All-Star break, and although there secretly may be an element of truth to that statement, nobody likes playing catch up if they fall into even a small hole. Miami are by no means in a hole, but if they are planning on turning it on, it would want to be soon.
The additions the Pacers made may be eventually what pushes them over the top. Forward Luis Scola, who absolutely could be a starter in a number of other locations, gives great experience and the ability to stretch the floor off the bench. He is a prime example of playing for the team rather than for himself. This is ideal because in actual fact the whole roster is like this, with any number of players capable of going off on any given night. No more needs to be said on superstar Paul George. He’s big time, he’s the real deal, he’s the kind of player who can bring a team to the very top, and he is only going to get better. Others have called Roy Hibbert the difference for the Pacers, that inside presence who can wreck havoc on the glass. Truth is the Heat have dealt with him sufficiently before. But if he can elevate his game just that little bit more, Miami will have no answer for what he can do in the paint. Greg Oden may be able to stop him in spurts, but right now he physically cannot do that. Any notions the Heat have of picking up troublesome Andrew Bynum should be tossed out of a very high building as well, he would bring too much baggage to a Heat team that have a fantastic chemistry. David West is the emotional leader and getting anything out of Danny Granger could potentially be explosive too. George Hill is not an elite level point guard, but luckily for Indiana, neither is Mario Chalmers. As talented as this team is, there is still more.
Lance Stephenson. In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals the look on his face told you he was out of his depth. His crazy raw talent has never been a question, and it was his questionable composure and handling of the ball which hurt his team. His decision making was not in line with who the Pacers are either. So to see Stephenson having the best year of his career, and even buying in defensively a little as well, makes him a potential X-factor here. Paul George can duel LeBron James and probably even afford to come off second best. Roy Hibbert will bully Chris Bosh. But if Stephenson can begin to get into a rhythm early in the series, what then? He becomes that missing piece, the best fourth option any team could hope for. Dwyane Wade is declining in efficiency, but even if he can turn back the clock just for this series, he will find it tough to guard Stephenson if he can get in going. Should Wade not be up to it, who guards him then? Ray Allen? Even if James comes across to shut him down, that allows George to shine, and then the Heat are really in trouble. It is this selfless attitude and stifling defence which can really harm Miami. Added to that is their hunger to win a championship as well, it is the ultimate goal and one which they have been building towards for four years now.
But yet LeBron James is still LeBron James. His story up to now has been an actual Hollywood movie, from the humble beginnings to the hype, all the way to being the most hated man in America and back to new heights once more. Ultimately it may not matter what the Pacers do, when you have the best player in the world, special things can happen. As great as he’s been this year, and we do take his abilities for granted when he has an off night, you can see James has coasted a little and had to deal with niggling injuries too. He’s gearing up for the playoffs already, and he’s looking to threepeat.
Well, what do you think? It is such an interesting question, and one that won’t be answered for some time yet. Go on, nail your colors to the post and pick a side, who will win if/when they meet in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Miami Heat, or the Indiana Pacers?