It's been more than three months since the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers last went toe-to-toe. That night, the two-time defending NBA champs eked out a 97-94 win on their home floor by way of a 10-0 run in the final three minutes of the game. The result moved Miami to 19-6 and dropped Indy to 20-5, just eight days after the Heat had succumbed to their Eastern Conference Finals foes at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
That tit-for-tat contest served as a wildly entertaining preview of what would come in May and June, when these two titans would presumably meet again in the conference finals. As far as the standings are concerned, Miami and Indiana would still appear to be on track for such a rematch. They were the first two teams in the NBA to clinch playoff spots, and both still enjoy sizable leads over everyone else for the top two seeds in their conference.
But as the Pacers prepare to host the Heat on Wednesday, the prospect of that pairing meeting once again in the conference finals isn't quite the foregone conclusion it used to be. If their play since early March is any indication, Miami and Indiana are both at risk of falling far short of their championship expectations—with just three weeks to go until the start of the postseason, no less.
The question is, which of those two is on weaker footing as they prepare to play twice before the regular season comes to a close?
The Heat Is On
The recent records of these teams aren't pretty, to say the least, and are hardly becoming of season-long title contenders.
Miami's gone 6-7 since its eight-game winning streak ground to a halt on March 4. The Heat have allowed as many points per 100 possessions (106.7) as they've scored over that span. Likewise, Miami's opponents in that time have shot 47.1 percent from the floor, including 36.9 percent from three on a hefty 24 attempts per game.
And it's not as though Dwyane Wade's perennial health problems are entirely at fault. He's missed just three of those 13 games, with his teammates winning two of them.
LeBron James, for one, isn't looking for anybody or anything to blame. At least, he wasn't after the Heat fell flat against the New Orleans Pelicans this past Saturday.
"It’s too many excuses; everything is an excuse," James told reporters in New Orleans. "We do something wrong, it’s an excuse. We don’t get a stop, it’s an excuse. We turn the ball over, it’s an excuse. What we’re doing right now ain’t good enough."
What they're doing may well be little more than going through the motions, as Chris Bosh suggested to reporters that same night after watching Anthony Davis put up 30 points and 11 rebounds, partly as his expense:
We just show up and do whatever. [After] a loss, nobody’s upset. [After] a win, nobody’s happy. There’s no passion. There’s nothing. If you’re frustrated, say you’re frustrated. Give reasons for that. We just need some dialogue around here. We’ve been keeping things in for a whole season now. And we’re running out of time. We need to let it out and have some urgency.
For LeBron, that sense of urgency applies to whomever's out there in a Heat uniform. "We’ve always had lineup changes," James added. "Guys who are on the floor need to produce. It’s that simple. It’s very frustrating. We’re all frustrated. We just got to all get on the same page. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’ve got to figure it out."
Bosh put it in much starker terms. "We suck. And if we don’t play better, we’ll be watching the championship at home."
Falling Off the Pace
If not for the Heat's struggles, the Pacers might've already ceded the top seed in the East to their South Beach counterparts. As it stands, Indy's cushion is down to two games after a stretch of three losses in four games. Prior to that, the Pacers had followed up a four-game losing streak with four easy wins against some of the East's bottom-feeders.
What's more, Indy's win over the Chicago Bulls last Friday was its first against a team with a winning record since Feb. 7. These Central Division rivals met once again on Monday, with the Bulls exposing Indy's offensive ineptitude during an 89-77 slugfest.
To be sure, Indy's offense hasn't exactly sparkled all season. The Pacers rank 21st in offensive efficiency overall, with their 101.9 points per 100 possessions placing them between the Detroit Pistons and the Los Angeles Lakers. They check in 19th in effective field-goal percentage, which accounts for the added value of three-pointers. To make matters worse, the Pacers are turning the ball over 15.9 times per 100 possessions—the sixth-worst mark in the league.
Indy's indicators have all cratered since March 4, when the Golden State Warriors left their building with a two-point win on a turnaround jumper by Klay Thompson. In that time, the Pacers offense has produced just 98.1 points per 100 possessions, (second-worst in the league, ahead of only the Philadelphia 76ers) on the fourth-worst effective field-goal percentage while turning the ball over an unsightly 16.6 times per 100 possessions.
The Pacers will tell you themselves that poor execution has contributed to the decline.
"Our execution isn't where we want it to be," Paul George told reporters after the loss in Chicago on Monday. "We're nowhere near where we want to be as far as screening, setting guys up, moving with some energy and cutting off the ball. Everything's just lackadaisical. That's going to get you beat."
An absence of energy has only exacerbated—if not caused—that collapse in crispness. George expounded upon that point:
We have to do a better job of playing with more energy. We've just been dead, it seems, on the court lately. That's not us. We used to be a team that played with a lot of energy. I thought we kind of lost that. … I don't know what happened to it, where it went, but we're going to need that because that's when we're special.
Otherwise, the Pacers will be left with little more than the contested looks from the perimeter that they've gotten of late.
"I just look at other teams' play and they just swing, swing, swing the ball and somebody gets an open shot or a wide-open layup," Roy Hibbert told reporters following Indy's punchless performance in the Windy City. "How do we get those types of shots where we don't have to heave something up at the end of the shot clock? With that type of stuff, you can't get into a rhythm. It's just not one-on-one basketball."
Not surprisingly, that brand of basketball has resulted in an unfavorable shift in Indy's scoring habits.
|%FG Assisted||%Pts Midrange||%Pts from 3||%Pts in Paint|
|Since March 4||54.6||22.7||19.2||38.2|
None of this would matter quite so much for the Pacers if their defense was still gumming up opposing offenses like it was earlier on. Since March 4, Indy has surrendered 101.2 points per 100 possessions. That mark still puts the Pacers comfortably within the top 10, but it pales in comparison to the 94.4 points per 100 possessions they'd allowed through the first four-plus months of the 2013-14 season.
The Pacers, though, can count on a turnaround of some sort on that end. They hang their hat on their lockdown defense and have done so for years now. They can and certainly should get back to that in time for the playoffs, given their collective experience and defensive expertise, even when the energy isn't up to snuff.
That could hold true in some respects for Indy's offense. Part of the responsibility for that will fall to Hibbert. The All-Star center has been a non-factor on that end of the floor, averaging nine points on just 7.5 shots per game over the last three weeks.
If the Pacers are going to get the open jumpers and layups to which Hibbert alluded, they'll need him to be more aggressive inside. That way, he can attract attention from opposing defenses and free up floor space for his teammates. As Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal recently noted, that'll require that Hibbert play with the sort of confidence he's struggled to muster of late:
Until Hibbert regains his confidence, which could come with just one performance against a lackluster frontcourt, he's going to continue posting unimpressive offensive numbers. The Pacers need at least a little output from the center, but it's not like they're asking him to become a scoring superstar.
The job of "scoring superstar" would normally fall instead to George, who leads the Pacers with 21.8 points per game. His per-game production has dropped to 17.9 points over the last three weeks, with George's shots dropping through a paltry 36.5 percent of the time (27.7 percent from three).
Indy can't expect its bench (28th in the league in scoring, per Hoops Stats) to make up the difference, especially with Andrew Bynum out indefinitely again. Nor can it rely on the more-than-occasionally-wild Lance Stephenson or the aging David West to pick up all of the slack.
Rather, the Pacers will have to do it as a unit, as they've done when things have gone well for them in the past. They'll have to set better screens and move the ball more fluidly and decisively, all with greater intensity and intentionality, if they're to ensure that their season doesn't end before the conference finals.
The same could be said of Miami on the other end. The Heat are at their best when they're playing their signature brand of aggressive, trapping defense that forces turnovers and, in turn, fuels their ferocious fast break. Since early March, the Heat have forced fewer miscues (15.7 per 100 possessions) while allowing their opponents to post an effective field-goal percentage of 52.2, the seventh-worst mark in the NBA.
That won't cut it for almost any club saddled with championship expectations, but especially not one that's as devoid of lane-clogging, rim-protecting, rebounding-collecting size as the Heat are.
The good news is, these trends should turn come playoff time. Miami's defensive style requires a degree of focus and energy that's difficult to sustain during the regular season, when the games are more frequent and less meaningful, but should be "easier" to muster with regular rest and a potential three-peat staring them in the face.
Having a healthy Wade around should help, too. He's missed 19 games this season, largely due to strategic rest scheduled by Miami's coaches and trainers. In fact, Wade's played in both legs of a back-to-back just three times this season.
He and the Heat won't have that problem in the postseason. If Wade's healthy and playing well, he gives the Heat another gear that no other team can match.
That doesn't mean, though, that Miami's title hopes will be bullet-proof if Wade's around and the defensive effort is up to snuff. Nor can Indy count on a return trip to the Eastern Conference Finals if it regains its former competence on both ends of the floor. Matchups will also factor into each team's ability to advance, and may do so heavily.
At this point, the Heat would probably prefer to avoid the Brooklyn Nets if they can help it. Brooklyn boasts two former tormentors—Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett—along with a track record of taking out the defending champs; the Nets are 3-0 against the Heat this season.
For now, the Heat can breathe easy knowing that the Nets aren't on their playoff radar—not now, anyway. If the postseason started today, Brooklyn would be the fifth seed in the East, thereby putting off a matchup with Miami until the conference finals, if it were to materialize at all.
Not that the alternative—a second-round standoff with the third-seeded Bulls—would be that much better. Chicago and Miami split their season series, with the former taking the most recent meeting in overtime.
The Pacers probably wouldn't mind missing the Bulls if they can help it, either. They, too, went 2-2 against Chicago.
But unlike Miami, Indy can't count on its offense coming through against Chicago's suffocating defense, particularly in crunch time. If anything, going up against a Bulls squad whose strengths and weaknesses are so similar to their own could put the Pacers in a tough spot.
Which team's title hopes are in more trouble right now?
The matchups could all shift considerably between now and mid-April. The Heat are a mere two games back of the Pacers for pole position, while the Bulls, the Toronto Raptors, the Nets and the Washington Wizards are separated by just three-and-a-half games. As such, three weeks might be enough time to shake up the playoff picture in the East in one way or another.
That being said, the Heat and the Pacers are still the runaway favorites to be the last two teams standing in the Eastern Conference this spring. Their respective stores of talent, experience and cohesion put them head and shoulders above their competition, at least on paper.
Still, the East isn't quite as replete with cupcakes and tomato cans as it appeared to be earlier this season. The Bulls and the Nets sport the veteran know-how to make some noise. The Raptors and the Wizards won't be pushovers, either.
As for the favorites, the Pacers would appear to have more work ahead of them to solidify their championship hopes in time for the playoffs. They've yet to reach the "Promised Land" of the NBA Finals themselves, and they may well have worn themselves out somewhat over the course of this campaign while trying to prove to themselves and everyone else that they will.
Not that the Heat won't have plenty of their own challenges to overcome. Between Wade's chronically problematic knee, James' increasingly balky back and the team-wide fatigue that follows three consecutive trips to the Finals, Miami's path back to the top will be replete with potholes.
Which is all the more reason for the Heat and the Pacers to dig themselves out of their parallel ruts—against each other as well as the rest of the NBA—lest either get caught flat-footed when the Larry O'Brien Trophy is actually at stake.
Which beast of the East is in greater danger right now? Let me know on Twitter!