Whether serious or just saying it to say something nice, Dwight Howard offhandedly bid farewell to a few local Indianapolis TV cameramen after the Lakers-Pacers game Friday night with this:
“See y’all in the finals.”
The idea that Howard’s Los Angeles Lakers can get past the Thunder, Spurs, Clippers and everyone else in the West is one loaded question mark.
But what about the idea that the Pacers can dethrone the Miami Heat in the East to reach the NBA Finals?
The Pacers’ loss to the Lakers—when Indiana should’ve been fired up after losing its previous big game at Miami on Sunday—was actually an example of how big a gap still remains between the Pacers and Heat.
Indiana simply doesn’t have the margin for error that more talented teams do. And the challenge is that the most talented teams (ones with guys like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, for sure) increase their margin for error further in the playoffs by playing harder than they did in the regular season.
The Pacers are already playing consistently hard, which is a tribute Indiana coach Frank Vogel, whose work ethic was established well before he had the team on point in his playoff debut as Pacers coach in 2011, when he guided Indiana during a fierce first-round series against favored Chicago; before he did all variety of chores as Rick Pitino’s student-manager at Kentucky; and right around the time he, at age 13, practiced until he got on The Late Show with David Letterman with the Stupid Human Trick of brushing his teeth while spinning a basketball on the end of the toothbrush.
But if the Pacers aren’t sharp, they have no chance of unseating the Heat—who have superstars they can bank on the way the Lakers do with the fitter and more focused Howard in the middle, plus championship experience.
And that’s part of the reason why David West, who was throttled most of the game by undersized Metta World Peace, was “really disappointed” about the loss to the Lakers.
“We didn’t take advantage of the opportunity we had,” West said. “We just didn’t defend the three and mentally made some errors that cost us. I thought we just mentally broke down a couple of times. We just gave up some plays we should not have given up.”
The Pacers have gotten where they are by taking away what’s easy for the opposition and taking what’s easy for them.
Against the Lakers, the easy stuff never happened. West was a bust when the Pacers ran the offense through him inside. Paul George was unassertive in settling for jumpers, perhaps let down that boyhood idol Kobe Bryant decided not to play the last three quarters because of that ankle sprain. Roy Hibbert, whose second-half surge has given rise to hope that the Pacers might have the sort of paint presence to overwhelm Miami, was all out of sorts against Howard.
And all the Pacers were botching layups and failing to get to the free-throw line.
Some of that happens at times for the Pacers, who aren’t the smoothest offensive stylists out there. But their defense is supposed to be their rock.
That NBA-leading field-goal defense repeatedly faltered, as West mentioned, in tracking the Lakers’ three-point shooters.
“We quit following the game plan,” Vogel said after the loss. “Guarding the three-point line tonight was probably the biggest of the mental breakdowns. We left shooters left and right, a variety of different ways. We didn’t play a good basketball game.”
So they lost, even to a Lakers team basically without Bryant.
The thing is, guys like Steve Blake and Antawn Jamison can hit shots if left all alone. Usually the Pacers are so on point that they prevent anything easy from happening against them. If they aren’t sharp like that in any given playoff game, they’re going to lose.
So they have to be pretty perfect on that end to win what they can win—and hope the Heat are a lot off—for Indiana to win anything more.
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association; his column on Jeremy Lin won second place in 2012. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.