Posted May 10 2012 8:18AM
Playing the Heat is a time for celebration for the Pacers. Not only for reaching the second round of the playoffs for the first time in seven years, but for the opportunity to let folks know who they are.
They were ignored by network TV all season, don't have a single player who sells jerseys outside the state and they ranked 29 out of 30 in home attendance. Yes, the tortured fans in Charlotte loved their Bobcats more than Indiana -- supposedly the grassroots of basketball in this country -- warmed up to the No. 3 seed in the East.
Last time the Pacers were part of the national discussion, someone threw a cup at Ron Artest in Detroit and you know what happened next. Well, good thing this East semifinal series isn't a beauty or popularity contest, or else we'd be staring at a rout.
As it is, the Pacers will be pressed to push the Heat to the seven-game limit anyway. Unlike last series, Indiana won't have the luxury of taking advantage of a poor team missing a franchise player. Miami has two of them, giving them a 2-0 advantage in that all-important playoff category against the Pacers.
"The next round is going to be very tough for them," said Magic coach Stan Van Gundy.
And so this series will be about the no-stars vs. the All-Stars, the Heartland against South Beach, generic hoops matched with name-brand ball, all of which favor the Heat.
"We know a team can beat any crew of superstars," said Pacers coach Frank Vogel.
Miami won three out of four during the season and brings more playoff experience and higher expectations, while the Pacers are new to this contender game. It will take a near-flawless effort by Indiana to make this a shocker, which is certainly capable of happening. But realistically, that's a year and another player away.
What superstar can the Pacers throw against Miami's two in the clutch?
David West was a handful against Orlando (16 points, nine rebounds per) and Danny Granger had his moments but the Pacers really don't lean on anyone heavily. That works for them at times, and also against them other times. They're unpredictable and can spread the ball and locate the hot hand, a luxury few teams enjoy. And yet, in certain situations they need a player to develop a "this ball is mine" mentality that makes the other team shiver.
Can Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers give Miami a "third" dimension?
It always helps when LeBron and Wade have three-point shooters on the floor to knock down the open looks. Will Miller and Chalmers make defenses pay for doubling the two stars? They certainly don't suffer from opportunities. Miller is a gifted yet for some reason a reluctant shooter, while Chalmers is streaky. When they're hitting, Miami is nearly unstoppable.
Is this where Roy Hibbert plays up his value?
Hibbert was pushed around for five games in the Orlando series by Glen Davis and probably has the bruises to show for it, but in this series, he'll wrestle with someone a lot like him. Joel Anthony, unlike Davis, isn't built low to the ground. That could play right into Hibbert's hands and result in easier shots. Hibbert will be a restricted free agent this summer and needs a big series to erase some doubts.
How will George Hill and Darren Collison be used?
Hill replaced Collison as the starter late in the year and Collison may never come to grips with that, but he did make the most of his time on the floor in the clincher against Orlando. Indiana needs both point guards to break down the defense and yet neither is a big-assists guy. They work best when playing solid defense and pushing the tempo and hitting mid-range jumpers. Whoever's playing better usually gets the crunch-time minutes.
Who's the better coach?
Erik Spoelstra and Frank Vogel are young coaches who one day could be recognized as being among the best of the bunch. Right now, they're growing into their roles and getting more comfortable with their players. The big difference is only one has the burden of winning now. Spoelstra has everything to lose in this series, where an elimination could cost him his job.
The first options are West, a valuable addition to the Pacers, and Granger. West brings post-up ability but also a soft jumper from 15 feet. Granger will drill three-pointers yet often needs plenty of shots to be effective. When both players are on, Indy is tough to beat.
LeBron finally received his due this season when he received heavy consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. He did a credible job when assigned to Carmelo Anthony last series and now has the less-taxing challenge of chasing Granger. LeBron could win this series for Miami without scoring big points. He's that good.
Chris Bosh needs to be more involved offensively than he was in the first round, where he averaged just eight shots a game. Bosh tends to disappear when ignored on offense, so Miami would be well served by getting him going early. Otherwise, the burden falls on Wade and LeBron and Miami becomes predictable.
Hibbert is a solid shot-blocker who is much smarter about avoiding fouls. Problem is, Miami doesn't look for points from its centers, so there's no one for Hibbert to guard. Overall, the Pacers have collectively quick hands and often will shut down the passing lanes by rotating swiftly.
Granger is Indiana's leading playoff scorer (21 points) and has the shooting range to stretch a defense in a tight contest. He certainly isn't bashful about taking the last shot. However, Granger was a lot more effective three years ago when the Pacers were lousy and he was getting 27 a night.
Wade and LeBron are about as good as it gets in the fourth quarter, even with LeBron's documented flops in the NBA Finals. Miami should use them together on pick and rolls and really keep the defense guessing where the ball's going, but for some reason, that's not in the Heat playbook.
Paul George shot only 42 percent and seemed too passive with the ball against Orlando. He'll need to change that mentality, now that he has a series behind him and a bit more playoff experience. If he can force Wade to work defensively, it could tire Wade a bit on offense.
Shane Battier will have a considerably less stressful assignment this round, after coming off the bench and dealing with Melo. He needs to bring it defensively because he's an offensive liability, shooting 30 percent from the three-point line, where he usually gets open looks.\
Having soared up the conference charts and cemented themselves as an East power, the Pacers are feeling frisky. And they own a commanding depth advantage over Miami. Still, there's the very real feeling the Pacers are still trying to figure this contender thing out, while the Heat have already been there and done that.
Pick: Heat in six.
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