So many elements are involved in finding NBA postseason success, but perhaps nothing plays a bigger role than mental stability.
On the surface, that appears to be more curse than blessing for the bipolar Indiana Pacers. After three straight trips to the NBA Finals and back-to-back world titles, the Miami Heat aren't playing the same mind games as their bitter rivals.
The simple strategy is identical on both sides of the coin: controlling variance. There's a reason the one-game-at-a-time cliche exists in the sports lexicon. Amid the roller-coaster runs that define this league, teams try to stay as close to the midpoint as humanly possible.
For the Pacers, this common ground is akin to the mythical Fountain of Youth. They've heard tales of its existence but have never seen it during their life on the margins.
A Rocky Road to the Conference Finals
Indy is a team of extremes, equal parts dominant and disastrous.
Its pattern of Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde performances during the regular season (46-13 through March 2, 10-13 after that point) has carried over into the playoffs. The Pacers' nine postseason wins have had an average margin of victory of 10.1 points per game. Their six playoff losses have been decided by an average of 10.7 points.
General rule of new NBA it is never as good or as bad as it seems. Does that count for the Pacers?— David Locke (@Lockedonsports) April 20, 2014
The Pacers enjoy riding their highs like few other teams do.
They transparently pursued home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference. In their eyes, failing to secure it last season was the reason they failed to punch an NBA Finals ticket.
"The fact that Game 7 of the conference finals wasn't in our home building we felt was the difference in a trip to the Finals," forward David West said in November, via ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. "And we're going to do everything in our power to get a Game 7 in our building."
Those words carried a certain arrogance to them, but the confidence was undeniable.
It was also apparently misguided.
Indy's late-season swoon was riddled with signs of self-doubt. All-Star center Roy Hibbert went missing in action (8.6 points on 37.6 percent shooting, 4.3 rebounds over the last 24 games of the regular season). A separate search party was needed for starting point guard George Hill (7.3 points on 37.6 percent shooting, 3.3 assists over the final 16 games).
On the court, the Pacers' problems seemed nearly insurmountable. Away from it, they looked even worse.
"The Pacers are experiencing a leadership void at the moment," Windhorst wrote in March," and the only thing they're racking up faster than turnovers and bad shots is finger pointing."
Indiana is the proverbial riddle inside an enigma. A team clearly plagued by chemistry problems is now approaching historically relevant playoff success on the road, an area where mental fortitude is nothing short of a necessity:
Pacers have won 5 straight road gms. Only 4 teams in NBA history won 6+ straight road gms in single postseason -- and all 4 won the title— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 22, 2014
But the place that should be the Pacers' sanctuary, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, has proven to be anything but in the postseason. Indy's impressive 5-1 road record has been nearly undone by its 4-5 mark on its home floor.
The Pacers fought tooth-and-nail for home-court advantage, yet somehow forgot how to win inside the Hoosier State along the way.
The Pacers' playoff run was nearly derailed by the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks in the opening round. A fifth-seeded Washington Wizards team that looks to be one year (or more) away from true title contention sent a scare through the Circle City in the conference semis.
Indiana ultimately prevailed, but what remained after such a treacherous trip: a contender rediscovering its championship form or a sinking ship doomed to a date with the ocean floor?
Same Questions, Still No Answers
Leading up this heavyweight bout, Indy looked as shaken as a James Bond martini.
Then, it promptly rolled to a 107-96 win over the reigning champs in the series opener.
While this series is officially split as it shifts to South Beach for Game 3 Saturday night (8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN), there's been no question as to which team has looked superior through the first two contests:
Last Pacers-at-Heat preview note: Indy has led for 71:22 of 96 minutes played in this series. Miami has led for 19:06; teams tied for 5:32— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) May 24, 2014
The Pacers' 87-83 Game 2 loss Tuesday night was physically and mentally damaging.
West got scratched in the eye, but he had trouble finding his target before that happened (10 points, 5-of-16 shooting). All-Star swingman Paul George had his own struggles (14 points, 4-of-16 from the field) before suffering a concussion midway through the fourth.
The 24-year-old's status was initially up in the air for Saturday's tilt, but he has since received medical clearance, according to the Associated Press. With top-two team rankings in scoring (21.7 points, first), distributing (3.5 assists, tied for second) and rebounding (6.8 boards, tied for second) during the regular season, the two-way contributor is the biggest piece of the Pacers' playoff health.
Pacers have outscored opponents by 64 pts with Paul George on court in playoffs... and been outscored by 27 pts with him off court— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 23, 2014
Luckily, he may not feel any residual effects of the injury when he returns to action Saturday.
Whether the Pacers as a whole can recover from Tuesday's letdown remains to be seen.
Controlling this series could be construed as a confidence boost, but losing a game they know they should have won could cast more doubt on a team that might not be able to afford it. By his standards, LeBron James was far less than spectacular in Game 2 (22 points on 9-of-18 shooting). Miami's incendiary offense was efficient (50.7 field-goal percentage) but far from explosive (87 points, well shy of its 98.1-points-per-game playoff scoring average).
The Pacers played their game at their speed and lost. Late-game execution (or really, the lack thereof) proved to be Indy's self-inflicted demise.
This team presents itself as a confident bunch, and the numbers say that belief is justified. Despite those wild swings between good times and bad, the Pacers still employ the postseason's stingiest defense, holding opponents to just 97.9 points per 100 possessions:
Vogel: "We have defensive confidence against most teams. We know when we're at our best, we're tough to score on."— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) May 10, 2014
It may take more than lockdown defense to dethrone the Heat, though.
As good as the Pacers looked at that end Tuesday night, it ultimately wasn't good enough.
"It feels like you have to play a perfect game to beat Miami," George said in March, via Windhorst.
Two months later, it still seems that way. Indiana boasts the necessary tools for the task at hand (massive size on the interior, long and athletic defenders on the wings), but it's had a lot of these weapons in the past. And they haven't stopped the Heat from dispatching the Pacers in each of the last two postseasons.
Miami has history on its side. Indiana says it has the edge in confidence, but the jury is still out on that claim.
Now Or Never?
It's survival mode for both the Pacers and the Heat from here on out.
A Game 3 win not only determines the hold on home-court advantage (whether it stays with Miami or goes back to Indiana), it also provides a major mathematical edge to the winner. According to WhoWins.com, NBA teams with a 2-1 lead have historically gone on to win 82 percent of those series.
The numbers, of course, hold no bearing on this series. Past performance is hardly a guarantee for future success.
Which team will take control of the Eastern Conference Finals Saturday night?
That said, it's another gain in the mental war these clubs are waging against one another. As much stock as analysts put into strategic moves and analytical views of the stat sheets, it's these psychological battles that often crown playoff winners.
"This is the playoffs, there’s a lot on the line," Pacers guard Lance Stephenson said, via Manny Randhawa of Pacers.com. "They’re gonna try to go after us. We’ve just gotta be mentally sharp, prepare for the hits, and throw hits back."
The external challenges are significant for both sides. But the internal struggles are even more important.
Miami knows it can win a series like this because it's done so before. Indiana is still attempting to solve that puzzle.
The Pacers swear they're ready for this moment. Saturday night will be their chance to show they can not only talk a big game, but they can deliver a badly needed one too.