Why Indiana Pacers Are Biggest Threat to Miami Heat's 3rd Straight Title in 2014
Close calls have become the calling card of the Miami Heat since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all decided to join forces in South Beach during the summer of 2010. They've played in six elimination games—including three Game 7s—in their three years together.
One came against the Indiana Pacers this past spring.
If not for a particularly fateful play (and the decision that preceded it) in Game 1, the roles between the two Eastern Conference Finalists might've been reversed.
The Heat escaped that series in seven and went on to win their second consecutive title. If the past is any standard by which to predict the future, extending their current run to a three-peat will be anything but easy, even with the vast majority of Miami's roster set to return.
And especially after an offseason in Indy during which resting on laurels wasn't an option.
Larry Bird wasted no time restocking the Pacers' roster following his one-year hiatus from the team's front office.
He brought back David West by way of a three-year, $36.6 million deal; used the Pacers' mid-level exception to sign Chris Copeland and CJ Watson; parted ways with D.J. Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough and Sam Young; and, most recently, unloaded Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green on the Phoenix Suns (at the price of a first-round pick) in exchange for Luis Scola.
Throw a (hopefully) healthy Danny Granger into the mix, and the Pacers' bench, once the team's most glaring weakness, becomes yet another source of strength for Naptown's finest. Indy's reserves ranked 29th in the NBA in scoring and efficiency last season, per hoopsstats.com.
Which is to say, the Pacers' second unit was awful in 2012-13.
D.J. Augustin was borderline unplayable at the point, as was Sam Young on the wing. Tyler Hansbrough offered little more than six fouls, a pair of flailing arms and his goofy face in frontcourt support. Gerald Green parlayed his encouraging comeback with the then-New Jersey Nets in 2011-12 into a three-year, $10.5 million deal with the Pacers...and an all-too-frequent spot on the end of Frank Vogel's bench.
Only Ian Mahinmi proved to be anywhere near consistently useable, particularly in the playoffs, thanks to his length and defensive acumen. But even he would've been overmatched as any team's top sub.
According to NBA.com, the Pacers featured 11 five-man lineups, other than their starting unit, that logged at least 50 minutes apiece last season.
Those 11 combined to outscore the opposition by a total of 69 points in 1,037 minutes—not a bad number by any stretch, but hardly worth comparing to the 284-point advantage piled up by the starting five of Roy Hibbert, Paul George, David West, George Hill and Lance Stephenson in 1,217 minutes of action.
The drop-off was even steeper in the 2013 playoffs.
Keeping in mind the perils inherent in evaluating small samples, the Pacers fielded just one five-man unit (Hibbert-George-Hansbrough-Hill-Stephenson) other than its starting arrangement that played at least 20 minutes and logged a positive plus-minus rating. In fact, Indy was outscored by 123 points in total when its starting five wasn't out there, as opposed to topping the opposition by 126 points when it was (per NBA.com).
In the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals alone, Indy posted a rating of plus-46 when its starters were together against the Heat and minus-74 when they weren't.
Don't expect ghastly splits like those to pop up during the coming campaign. C.J. Watson's a clear upgrade over D.J. Augustin at the backup point, as are Chris Copeland and Luis Scola over Sam Young and Tyler Hansbrough. Granted, Copeland and Scola aren't exactly "plus" defenders, but at least they can hit shots and grab rebounds with regularity.
At the very least, they can be counted on not to make boneheaded plays from the moment they step onto the court.
That's really all Indy needs out of its reserves: not to be total drags on the team. The starting unit is good enough to carry the Pacers into title contention, so long as the backups can offer their more prominent counterparts the brief respites they need.
To be sure, this group should be able to do much more than just not stink, especially if Danny Granger is healthy enough to compete.
As Paul George recently noted, Granger has shown himself to be a top 20-caliber player on both ends of the floor when his knees aren't giving him fits. He's averaged better than 18 points per game in his career, been an All-Star, and handled the hype of being the best player on a team, albeit one that spent four seasons in the doldrums of the NBA draft lottery between 2006 and 2010.
Slotting a player of Granger's caliber into a more focused role off the bench would, hypothetically speaking, make Indy's second unit one of the league's best. Rare is the occasion that a club can count an All-Star as its sixth man.
Which Eastern Conference contender should the Heat be most concerned about?
Then again, Granger may be a far cry from his former self if and when he returns. He missed all but five games last season after undergoing not one, but two surgical procedures to alleviate the patellar tendinosis in his left knee. Fox 59 in Indianapolis reported that Granger would be ready in time for training camp in October.
Even if Granger isn't himself, the Pacers have already done enough to assert themselves as legitimate challengers to the Heat's throne atop the East. They'll have to compete with the Chicago Bulls, the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets for the right to once again make Miami sweat.
But if the Pacers and the Heat should meet in the playoffs, don't be surprised if the outcome is decided by more than a single (unfortunate) play.
Because, after a busy start to the summer, the Pacers now sport the pieces to not only take the two-time defending champs to the brink of elimination, but also push them over the edge once there.
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