It may seem like an odd thing to say after the Miami Heat easily dispatched the Indiana Pacers last night, but in the end the Pacers will wind up representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.
Even if Danny Granger is unable to come back from injury, the Pacers have shown they can beat the Heat this season. They've done it twice this year, winning by 10 in early January and by 12 when the calender turned to February.
Without Granger the Pacers have struggled to create offense at times, but they've done enough to overcome it so far. They currently sit at third in the Eastern Conference, a half-game behind the New York Knicks and nine games behind the first-place Heat. While the Heat's 18-game winning streak has put a regular season Eastern Conference title out of reach, the Pacers have a realistic shot of finishing second in the East.
The Knicks have struggled of late and have lost their two best players to injury over the past week. Carmelo Anthony has missed the last three games with a knee injury and Amar'e Stoudemire is out six weeks after undergoing another knee procedure.
It wouldn't be a shock if Stoudemire were to miss the rest of the regular season, and the playoffs might be off the table if there are any setbacks. Either way, losing Stoudemire is a huge blow to a team that is already thin on the front line and hasn't been playing their best basketball.
Therefore, the Pacers have the inside track to the No. 2 seed in the East. It goes without saying how important moving up one spot would be. The No. 2 seed in the East all but eliminates any chance of an opening-round matchup with the Boston Celtics.
The Celtics remain one of the most dangerous teams in the East given their playoff experience and coaching. If Indiana is able to lock up the No. 2 seed, they'll avoid a first-round upset and have a much easier road to meeting Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals.
No one expects the Heat to lose before the Eastern Conference Finals, or even after them for that matter. But the Pacers are capable of pulling off just that type of upset. They have all the necessary ingredients to beat the Heat.
Paul George gives the Pacers an athletic wing to match up with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James on the outside. George is also the Pacers' most dangerous player on the offensive end. He's gotten progressively better over the years and is able to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting ability, but it's still his defense that sets him apart.
Lance Stephenson's emergence gives the Pacers another weapon to put on Wade or LeBron. Stephenson is rather unheralded outside NBA circles, but the third-year man from Cincinnati gives the Pacers a relentless defender capable of frustrating opponents.
Inside is Indiana's biggest advantage, despite the shortcomings of Roy Hibbert. If Hibbert were somehow to miraculously get on track during the final month of the regular season, Indiana could be lethal come playoff time. The chances are he'll continue to monotonously miss bunnies around the rim, but he has played better lately.
Hibbert has averaged 12 points on 55 percent shooting since the All-Star break, improving on his 10 percent and 41 percent shooting prior to it. As I said, if HIbbert is able to continue to improve the Pacers could be lethal, especially against the Heat's weak interior.
The front-line player who sets Indiana apart is David West. West gives the Pacers a toughness in the middle the Heat don't have. I'll admit the pick-up of Chris "Birdman" Anderson was a shrewd move by Miami, but I'd still take Indiana's front line over Miami's (for argument's sake I don't consider LeBron part of Miami's front line. If LeBron is involved in any debate it's not really a debate—let's be honest. So in "front line" I mean power forward and center).
West and Hibbert should be able to dominate the Heat's soft front line on the glass come playoff time.
Collectively, the Indiana Pacers have played great defense all year. They're first in points per 100 possessions and second in total points allowed per game. Teams like to play slow and defensively minded in the playoffs, something the Pacers have been doing all year.
Part of the reason the Celtics have been a thorn in the Heat's side over the past few years is because they, much like the Pacers, play playoff-style basketball all season long. Any team that can effectively clamp down on Miami has had success in the past, and it's something the Pacers are capable of doing during a seven-game series.
Granger is the X-factor in this whole equation. He was able to come back for a five-game stretch a week-and-a-half ago, but could miss another week after re-aggravating his knee. Even if Granger comes off the bench and gives Indiana 20 minutes a night, it would be a tremendous boost to its depth and scoring. Granger showed he was unafraid of LeBron during last season's playoffs, so having him back against the the Heat this year could be what puts Indiana over the top.
Beating the Heat will not be easy, especially in a seven-game series, but people will get too wrapped up in yesterday's defeat. The Pacers caught the Heat when they were the hottest—pun intended. Miami has been firing on all cylinders over the past month, riding a 17-game winning streak into Sunday night's matchup.
It seems unlikely, but Miami could be peaking at the wrong time. Over the next month a lot can happen. The Pacers will likely get their most talented scorer back, their big-time offseason re-signing may continue to improve and the favorable No. 2 seed in the East will be up for grabs.
When it comes down to a seven-game series anything can happen. Miami has struggled on the road all season, and the Pacers have the confidence to beat the Heat. It's a dangerous combination. Indiana put a scare in the Heat last year during the playoffs, but this season they will try to take the next step and finish them off.
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