Miami Heat Exposing Indiana Pacers' True Ceiling

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 27, 2014

Wilfredo Lee/AP Images

The Miami Heat dominated the Indiana Pacers in a wire-to-wire Game 4 thrashing on Memorial Day, notching a 102-90 victory that, appropriately, reminded us all of an important truth.

The Pacers aren't a championship contender.

Never were, actually.

We'd better get this narrative revision on the Pacers over with now because with Indy facing elimination, we won't get many more opportunities to set the record straight.

The Pacers we saw in the early season were really just a mirage—a highly motivated, highly confident group of players buoyed by their own press and emboldened by a competitive series with these very same Heat in last year's Eastern Conference Finals.

That team sprinted out to a league-best start, winning 33 of its first 40 games and sporting the best defense we'd seen in a very long time.

But even when Indy looked its best, we should have been skeptical. After all, the East was a joke this season, sporting just one real powerhouse with proven championship chops: Miami. Where were the scary matchups, the worthy opponents?

Kamil Krzaczynski/Associated Press

The Chicago Bulls lost Derrick Rose early. Both the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks stumbled out of the gate. Even the Washington Wizards, something of a playoff darling this year, flirted with .500 for most of the regular season.

There just wasn't any real competition we could use to measure Indiana accurately.

Having now seen the postseason ineptitude of virtually every East team that made the playoffs, we should be able to agree that the foes Indiana beat up on during the season's first couple of months were almost uniformly weak.

And when Indiana reverted to form down the stretch during the regular season, it revealed itself to be similarly unimposing.

There are any number of arbitrary cutoffs to choose from, but for the sake of a clean division, let's quickly observe the Jekyll-and-Hyde act Indiana put on before and after the All-Star break:

A Tale of Two Seasons
W-LORtg (Rank)DRtg (Rank)Net Rtg (Rank)
Before ASB40-12102.2 (19)93.6 (1)Plus-8.6 (1)
After ASB16-14100.2 (29)102.3 (7)-2.1 (19)

It's always been tempting to make the case that the Pacers' true identity was the one they showed us early in the year, or, at the very worst, somewhere in between the two extremes in performance that marked their 2013-14 campaign.

But now we know those second-half Pacers were the real ones.

And Miami is driving that point home with the authority of a LeBron James breakaway dunk.

The Heat aren't the kind of pushover Indiana feasted on early in the year. They're a championship-tested clan of assassins, more than happy to dispatch the Pacers as the world watches.

James, motivated by Lance Stephenson's ill-conceived psyche-out tactics, torched Indiana with a blazing stat line.

And he threw in plenty of ridiculous highlights for good measure.

Chris Bosh capitalized on a lazy Pacers defense by drilling jumper after jumper in the early going, all the while inviting strategic switches from Frank Vogel that inexplicably never came. Bosh finished with 25 points on a tidy 7-of-12 effort from the field.

It was an utterly thorough beatdown, which is precisely what you'd expect when a real title contender meets up with a team whose true talent level is really just a hair above the .500 mark.

Miami forced the Pacers into difficult or contested shots on most possessions, generating 14 turnovers and scoring on the break as lazy Indiana defenders failed to run back.

Worse still, the Heat even had their way with Indiana's vaunted defense—something they'd been doing all series long.

It's sad to watch, but the Pacers seem to be the last ones realizing they're not on Miami's level. Oh, sure, they'll say they've still got confidence in themselves:

And Stephenson, of course, won't ever admit to having made a grave error in provoking James:

But Indiana is watching this series unfold the same way we are, and it has to be drawing the same conclusions about the illusory nature of its early-season performance.

It's tempting to say Roy Hibbert won't go scoreless again in this series, but he's now done exactly that four times in the playoffs. And it would be nice to believe George Hill will forcefully attack Miami's trap like he should have been from Game 1, but he hasn't done it yet, and it's hard to imagine he'll suddenly figure out the secret in time to avoid elimination.

Great teams don't find themselves in the position Indiana is in now—hopeless, reeling, exposed.

So, when the Pacers head home to play Game 5, don't be surprised when their own fans hit them with a rough reception as things—inevitably—start to go bad.

It's always hardest for die-hard supporters to face reality. And reality, in this case, is the Pacers not being what so many thought they were a few months ago. After playing way above its head for a few months, Indiana has crashed back to mediocrity.

A deeply flawed team that lacks a functional offense, a serviceable bench and anything resembling a go-to scorer, Indiana is up against a terrifyingly superior opponent. So it's not really fair to ask more of this team than it has already given. These Pacers have maxed out their potential.

It's not the Pacers' fault we overestimated what that potential was.

The Heat are happily reminding them (and us) of something we all should have known all along: Indy's ceiling is nowhere near that of a real title contender.