Paul George and the Indiana Pacers are out for vengeance against LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. In last season's conference semifinals, the eventual champs dispatched the inexperienced Pacers in a tidy six games.
If things are to be different for the Pacers this time around, they'll have to rely on the NBA's best defense and the emergence of George and Roy Hibbert as a formidable pair of two-way stars. The Pacers will be confident when they tangle with Miami, fresh off a statement series win over the New York Knicks and armed with the knowledge that they've already proved they can play with this year's version of the Heat.
Indy logged a surprising 2-1 record against Miami during the regular season. Still rolling along after a 4-1 series victory over the Chicago Bulls, the Heat, however, look as unbeatable as ever. Aside from the persistent questions surrounding Dwyane Wade's cranky knee, Miami lacks an obvious weakness. Indiana is a much-improved team this year, but the Heat have enjoyed some growth of their own.
Season Series: Pacers 2, Heat 1
Playoff Seeds: Pacers No. 3; Heat No. 1
Playoff Records: Pacers 8-4; Heat 8-1
- Game 1: Wednesday, May 22, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
- Game 2: Friday, May 24, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
- Game 3: Sunday, May 26, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
- Game 4: Tuesday, May 28, 8:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
- Games 5-7: TBD
What Everybody's Talking About: Indiana's Improvements
The Pacers managed to take a pair of games from the Heat in last season's playoff clash, but in looking back, that was a very different (and definitely worse) Indiana squad than the one we'll see this time around.
George was just the fifth-leading scorer for the Pacers in that series, and Lance Stephenson played a grand total of seven minutes. In just under a year since then, George has blossomed into a legitimate star, having recently won the league's Most Improved Player award after taking over a leading role in the absence of the injured Danny Granger.
And Stephenson, whose only headlines in last year's series came when he made a choking motion toward James after a missed free throw, just finished pounding the Knicks for 25 points and 10 rebounds in Game 6 Saturday night.
George and Stephenson are now filling much bigger roles, and the Pacers are better for it.
Plus, Indy's defense has taken a leap. With elite wing defenders in George, Stephenson and George Hill, the Pacers have been denying three-point looks and sending all of the action toward Hibbert at the rim. The result has been a defensive rating that has improved from 100.4 points allowed per 100 possessions in 2011-12 to a league-best 96.6 this season.
Indiana is now officially a dominant defensive outfit, capable of doing the dirty work as a team and even producing some world-class individual stops.
These Pacers are older, wiser and just plain better than they were a year ago.
What Nobody's Talking About: the Bosh Effect
Chris Bosh played less than one half of one game in last year's second-round matchup. A strained abdominal in the second quarter of Game 1 forced the Heat to go even smaller than they otherwise would have against Indiana's burly front line. Despite the loss of their third star, the Heat prevailed.
All the talk of Indiana's improvement is valid. But it's foolish to overlook the fact that Miami will essentially be adding an All-Star to the team that was still good enough to beat the Pacers last year. For evidence of just how critical Bosh is to the Heat's attack against Indiana, just watch the clip in which he hurt himself last May. That, my friends, is called a "blow-by."
Hibbert can't stay with Bosh on the perimeter, and that's where Miami's "center" lives. His ability to pull Indiana's shot-blocking interior presence away from his beloved paint is extremely important in this series. We've already spent time discussing how Hibbert is the hub of the Pacers' excellent defense, but he can't fill that role if he's out of position.
If No. 55 isn't in the middle because he's being forced to challenge Bosh in the mid-range area, Indiana is going to have to recalibrate its defensive scheme.
The obvious solution would be to cross-match Hibbert onto a power forward, but the Heat's best five-man units feature some guy who has won four MVP awards at that spot. So, if Hibbert's on the court, chances are he's going to have to deal with Bosh.
That's a big offensive advantage for Miami.
Key Matchup: LeBron James vs. Paul George
George's offensive game has a long way to go, but as a wing defender, he might already be among the NBA's very best. Just ask the King, himself:
No single player can hope to shut James down, but George probably comes closest. And after averaging 19.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists against the Knicks in the second round, George has proved that James won't be able to take much of a break on the other end, either.
During the regular season, George held James to averages of 21.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists on 51.7 percent shooting. That might not sound like much of an achievement, but each of those figures is lower than James' season averages
Part of what has made James so dominant all season has been his ability to be wildly productive without seeming to put forth much effort. LBJ is going to get his numbers against the Pacers; George's job is to make sure he at least has to work for them.
Don't Forget: Wade's Knee
One of the enduring images from the Pacers' series-clinching win over the Knicks was Stephenson barreling into the lane like a wrecking ball on steroids. His speed, physicality and general disregard for the safety of those around him make Indiana's shooting guard a rough matchup for anyone.
But for Wade, whose creaky knee has severely limited his athleticism (save for a brief three-minute spurt at the end of Game 5 against the Bulls), Stephenson is kind of a nightmare. You can bet that the ultra-aggressive guard will be riding high after his terrific performance against New York, so Wade is going to have to be ready to mix it up.
If his knee can't hold up to the physical pounding it'll have to take against Stephenson, not only will he have to suffer the embarrassment of losing a matchup to a guy who wasn't even in the rotation a year ago, he'll also be putting his team at a massive disadvantage.
The Heat can't coast on offense against the Pacers' vaunted D. That means Wade is going to have to prove he can function as the secondary scorer he was in last year's postseason. In other words, Wade's current playoff averages of 13.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists on 45 percent shooting simply aren't going to cut it.
If Stephenson's constant motion and physical defense wears the hobbled Wade down—or worse, knocks him out—Miami could suddenly find itself in trouble.
Prediction: Heat in 6 Games
For all of the laudable improvements the Pacers have made, this is still a Miami team that boasts the best player on the planet and a couple of new additions who have helped it get better in its own right. With Ray Allen spacing the floor and Chris Andersen finally serving as the backup big man the Heat have lacked since the Big Three came together, Miami is deeper and more balanced than ever.
The Pacers, on the other hand, essentially have no bench. When James, Wade and Bosh inevitably create foul trouble for Indiana's terrific starting lineup, Frank Vogel is going to find the cupboard bare when he looks for serviceable reserves to eat up a few minutes in relief of his first unit.
It's funny—the Pacers are easily the team with the best chance to make the Heat sweat for the first time this postseason...but it's almost impossible to create a logical case for them actually beating Miami. James is too good, the Heat offense too synced up, and the Pacers simply can't afford a single injury or instance of foul trouble.
As boring as it seems, we're still in the same place we were when this season (and these playoffs) began: The Heat are a cut above the rest.