Despite all of the roadblocks and detours, the Eastern Conference played out just as expected. The top-seeded Indiana Pacers will meet the No. 2 Miami Heat in the conference finals for the second year in a row.
It is all a bit ironic that as much as the Pacers' critics have foretold Indiana's impending doom, the team has made it this far. Perhaps it's an indictment as to how bad the Eastern Conference is as a whole that Indiana can still get to the conference finals despite playing way below its best.
With that said, you could also see a future in which the Pacers manage to better the Heat. Roy Hibbert always gives Miami problems in the paint, so maybe this matchup is the tonic that will force Indy out of its funk. If they can't wake up for a conference finals series against the Miami Heat, there's no hope for them.
Who knows what's gonna happen, with the way that these playoffs have unfolded?
Below is the television schedule for the Eastern Conference Finals. You can see the full postseason bracket on NBA.com.
|Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat|
|Game||Home||Away||Date||Time (ET)||TV Info|
|1||Indiana Pacers||Miami Heat||Sun., May 18||3:30 p.m.||ABC|
|2||Indiana Pacers||Miami Heat||Tue., May 20||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|3||Miami Heat||Indiana Pacers||Sat., May 24||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|4||Miami Heat||Indiana Pacers||Mon., May 26||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|5*||Indiana Pacers||Miami Heat||Wed., 28||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|6*||Miami Heat||Indiana Pacers||Fri., May 30||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|7*||Indiana Pacers||Miami Heat||Sun., June 1||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
(Note: * denotes game may not be necessary.)
So much of the Pacers' chances hinge on Hibbert's performance in the next round. He's recently been a shadow of the player considered a contender for Defensive Player of the Year earlier in the season. His postseason averages are down almost across the board from where they were in the regular season.
Of course, the silver lining is that the 27-year-old has owned Miami in each of the last two postseasons:
You can see Hibbert's regular-season and career averages against the Heat, in addition to his last two playoffs:
|Roy Hibbert Averages vs. Miami Heat|
|2014 Regular Season||14.0||.525||3.0||1.0|
|2013 Conference Finals||22.1||.557||10.4||1.0|
|2012 Conference Semifinals||12.3||.475||11.5||2.5|
|ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com|
Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal argued that Indiana's Game 6 performance against the Washington Wizards proved that the Pacers as a whole are nearing a return to their peak:
This lockdown mentality should've reminded you of the first-half Pacers, the same ones that were so defensively excellent that I compared them to the greatest units of all time. Actually, I didn't just compare them, instead saying that at that point in the season (early January), they were on pace to go down as the best. ...
Nonetheless, holding opponents to 82 points or fewer three times in six games is undeniably impressive. It's a sign this defense is back on track.
David West was also superb in Indy's 93-80 win on Thursday night, leading all scorers with 29 points on 13-of-26 shooting. West had a lot of success with his mid-range jumpers. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he hit 10 of his 14 shots from mid-range, compared to Washington's 10-of-24 overall.
As good as Paul George is, West might hold the key for the Pacers. He's the senior leader on the court, and when he's got a hot hand around the basket he can be hard to stop.
"When David West has that look, when he's assertive and he demands the ball, I know we're in good hands," George told reporters after Game 6. "He's never failed us when he's given us that look and he's told us in the huddles, 'Get me the ball.'"
All of that is contrasted with the Heat, who have largely followed the script. They broke a bit of a sweat against the Charlotte Bobcats and then fought hard to knock out the Brooklyn Nets.
The scary thing is, we probably haven't even seen Miami's best basketball yet. LeBron James had that 49-point outburst in Game 4 against the Nets, but otherwise he's been below his otherworldly playoff best of recent seasons.
The Heat's story all season has been that they were saving themselves for the postseason. They've stayed in first gear and rested their top guys because they knew that would be good enough for at least second in the East.
Dwyane Wade started only 53 regular-season games because the more important games would be in May and June; that's when the team would be judged.
As much as you want to think that home-court advantage will play a large role, remember that the Pacers lost Games 1 and 5 at home to both the Wizards and Atlanta Hawks in respective rounds this year.
At this point, the burden of proof is on Indiana. Miami deserves the benefit of the doubt by virtue of its back-to-back NBA titles.
While the Pacers have played at a level earlier in the season that would make you believe they could unseat the defending champs, their playoff performance thus far doesn't offer much evidence that that's possible anymore.
The Heat should wrap it up in six.