The Miami Heat will host the Indiana Pacers in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals on Monday, and contrary to what Skip Bayless would have you believe, the result will not come down to abstract queries like "whether LeBron is a closer" or "how badly Dwyane Wade wants it."
This has been a painfully nuanced series, well-coached on both ends of the floor, with a myriad of factors determining the outcome of each game. And while, yes, Miami has the best player on the planet and his performance will be pivotal to the final score (more on that soon), in truth there has been much more going on in these games. And Monday's deciding contest will be the same.
Here's a quick look at three key factors that could determine the Eastern Conference champ.
Stop LeBron James at ALL COSTS
I don't care if it takes two, three or five defenders—the Pacers can not, I repeat can not let LeBron James be the one who beats them. Yes, the Heat are all professional basketball players, and sure, they have two other "All-Stars" on the team. It doesn't matter. You take your chances with any of them over LeBron James. Every. Single. Time.
If the choice is between LeBron taking a contested 12-footer and Mario Chalmers wide open for three, you choose the latter. If the choice is between LeBron going into a double-team at the rim and Chris Bosh open at the top of the key, you choose the latter. No matter what the situation, you choose the option that gets the ball away from LeBron James.
Why, do you ask, is this so important? I mean, Indiana has made it this far without throwing all hands on deck against LeBron...right?
Right. But those weren't elimination games. In elimination games, LeBron has a special way of taking over. In elimination games, he morphs into something nearly unstoppable.
Just take a look at his last few:
2012 vs. Boston (Game 7): 31 points, 12 rebounds
2012 at Boston (Game 6): 45 points, 15 rebounds, 19-for-26 shooting
2011 vs. Dallas (Game 6): 21 points, four rebounds, six assists*
2010 at Boston (Game 6): 27 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists
* Came when LeBron was, clearly, going through some weird sort of mental block. He has since corrected that issue, so this may be fluky data.
The Pacers must be careful with LeBron James on Monday, or else they could face the same fate Boston did in Game 6 last year.
Which David West Will Show Up?
Paul George is becoming one of the surest bets in basketball, and so is—gulp—Roy Hibbert (at least in this series). They're both gonna show up to play in Game 7, and I fully expect them to have good performances.
David West, on the other hand, I could see going either way.
Sort of the keystone species for Indiana's success, West has had an up-and-down series to say the least. He's dominant in spots, as he was in Game 1 and the second half of Game 6. And he's cancerous in others, as he was in Game 2 or the first half of Game 6.
And I know he had the upper respiratory infection, and it took some cojones to fight through that and play. But that doesn't help me with anything. David West's cojones were never in question.
What is on trial is his consistency, and on a big stage, his performance could well decide the victor. If he performs like the All-Star that he is, especially given the way Wade and Bosh have played of late, Indiana has the second-, third- and fourth-best players in this series.
LeBron is light years ahead of Paul George, but that might be enough for Indiana to even the score.
Which Team Will Have the Unlikely Hero?
It seems to happen in every big game of this ilk: One team gets an anomalous performance from one of its up-and-down role players, and very often that's the deciding factor.
With this particular series, there's hardly a dearth of options. Beyond the Heat's Big Three and the Pacers' Big Four (I'm counting George Hill, since he'd hardly be an unlikely hero), look at some of the single-game performances from this postseason:
- Ray Allen (MIA): 23 points, 5-for-8 three-point shooting in Game 3 vs. Milwaukee
- Chris Anderson (MIA): 15 points, six rebounds, three blocks in Game 1 vs. Indiana
- D.J. Augustin (IND): 16 points, 4-for-5 three-point shooting in Game 1 vs. New York
- Mario Chalmers (MIA): 20 points in Game 4 vs. Indiana
- Norris Cole (MIA): 18 points, 4-for-4 three-point shooting in Game 2 vs. Chicago
- Tyler Hansbrough (IND): 10 points, six rebounds in Game 1 vs. Miami
- Udonis Haslem (MIA): 17 points, 8-for-9 shooting in Game 3 vs. Indiana
- Lance Stephenson (IND): 25 points, 10 rebounds in Game 6 vs. New York
I know this goes slightly against what I said in the LeBron section, but I still stand by those claims. If you're Indiana, you'd rather take your chances with the unlikely hero than the painfully obvious hero.
But if Udonis Haslem or Mike Miller pulls a Hunger Games II, that plan won't necessarily backfire—it just won't prove successful. If that's the case, though, they were in a lose-lose situation anyway and still made the better call.