Expert’s Corner: Who Can Diffuse the Heat?

They are the reigning champions, are currently on a mind-blowing 16-game winning streak, and are sitting comfortably atop the Eastern Conference. But the Miami Heat have shown some vulnerability against their top two challengers in the East this season – the Pacers and the Knicks – recording a 1-4 record against them so far. Can one of these two teams punch above their weight and diffuse the Heat in the playoffs? In this week’s Expert's Corner, NBA India columnists Akshay Manwani and Karan Madhok discuss whether it’ll be the Pacers or the Knicks who present a tougher challenge to Miami.

Karan's Take -- Knicks Akshay's Take -- Pacers
While team basketball succeeds in the regular season, it is difficult to have success in the playoffs without superstar talents who can create their own shot. The Knicks are blessed with not one, but two such talents – Carmelo Anthony (an early season MVP candidate) and the ever-improving Amar’e Stoudemire. When the going gets tough, and the tough on both sides get going, the opposing team will need a star to match the star-power of LeBron James. In one of the world’s best pure scorers, Carmelo Anthony is that star. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the Pacers aren’t blessed with players who can provide easy offense in grind-it-down playoff basketball games. Indiana may not boast the big names like Miami’s LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, but in David West, Roy Hibbert, Paul George, George Hill and Lance Stephenson, they have a much better all-round team. This reflects in best 5-man lineups in the league, with George, Hibbert, Hill, Stephenson and West placed at No. 1. Further, if you look at the best 4-man lineups, four of the top five and five of the top nine combinations belong to Indiana’s starting unit. In the playoffs, when rotations shorten, Indiana, undoubtedly, are the better team to challenge the Heat.

Bench Depth
Karan's Take Akshay's Take
Another major point that factors into successful playoff basketball is bench depth. The longer the series, the deeper a coach has to dig to find options. Luckily for the Knicks, they are blessed with one of the best bench mobs in the NBA, featuring Stoudemire, Sixth Man of the Year Candidate J.R. Smith, sharpshooter Steve Novak, experienced point guard Pablo Prigioni, and other veterans. While the Pacers have an efficient and successful starting five, they’ll struggle to match the intensity off the bench, especially now with a question mark over Danny Granger’s health. Indiana has missed Danny Granger, their scoring leader for five previous seasons, for the bulk of 2012-13. Granger did return for a few games at the end of February before recurring pain in his left knee at the beginning of March ruled him out of contention for at least another week. Should a fit and healthy Granger return to Indiana before the start of the postseason, his career-shooting average of 43.7 percent and 18.1 PPG should give the Pacers a definite shot-in-the-arm on the scoring front. Also, with Granger back, Stephenson will most likely come off the bench, thereby strengthening Indiana on that front, too.

Playoff Experience
Karan's Take Akshay's Take
In the NBA Playoffs, where nerves are sometimes equally as important as talent, there is no match for championship mettle. Players who have been there before can have the nerves of steel to rise up and do it again. The Pacers are a relatively inexperienced team when it comes to deep playoff runs. The Knicks are blessed with former NBA champions Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd in their regular rotation, as well as the injured Rasheed Wallace as a crucial locker-room presence. The likes of Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, and Kenyon Martin also a history of post-season success. Ever since the Heat became a force to reckon with the coming together of James, Wade and Chris Bosh in the summer of 2010, the Knicks have won just one game in the postseason. Indiana, on the other hand, made their way to the Eastern Conference semis last year where they lost to the Heat in a hard fought six-game series. That was an improved showing by the Pacers, who had lost in the first round of the 2011 postseason to the Chicago Bulls. This season, with West, George and Hill putting on a much better show, the Pacers have more experience than the Knicks in recent years to challenge the Heat.

Karan's Take Akshay's Take
The Knicks have matched up very well against the Heat in the regular season. New York dominated Miami in the first two meetings of the season with 20-point blowouts (the second one without Anthony) and were en route to another blowout halfway in their third game before a memorable comeback by the Heat saved the game for them. These performances will have the Knicks tactically prepared for the Heat once again in a possible playoff series. Miami are yet to win a game against Indiana this season. In their two previous meetings, the Heat have lost to the Pacers by 10 and 13 points respectively. The Pacers were also the last team to beat Miami before its current 16-game winning streak. The reason the Pacers do so well against Miami is because of their frontcourt size advantage. In those two games, the Pacers outrebounded the Heat 89-61 cumulatively, with Hibbert, West and George all doing an excellent job on the boards. Ian Mahinmi and Tyler Hansbrough extend this advantage for Indiana off the bench as well.

Closing Arguments
Karan's Take Akshay's Take
The Pacers are one of the top defensive teams in the league, but when it comes to the other end of the floor, they rank at a paltry 25th place in NBA. This will simply not do against a team like Miami who is sure to turn on their championship-level defense in the postseason. The Knicks – who have suffered with bad form in recent months – still rank in top 10 at both the offensive and defensive end of the floor. They will find it easier to score on Miami, and with better balance on both ends, will pose a tougher threat to them than Indiana in a best-of-seven series.

- Karan Madhok
Remember the old cliché’ – offense wins games, defense wins championships. Well, the Pacers are the top defensive team this season in the league. They enjoy the best defensive rating and rank no. 1 in effective field-goal percentage allowed to opponents. Also, Indiana is in better form compared to New York as we head closer to the playoffs. Since beating the Heat on February 1, the Pacers are 11-4 and have gone 6-2 post the All-Star break. New York, correspondingly, has gone 9-7 and 5-4. The tide, therefore, seems to be very much in favour of Indiana.

- Akshay Manwani