George Hill jump shot versus Miami Heat in 2012 playoffs
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Heat Should Bring Out Best in Pacers

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

January 7, 2013

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Statement games are largely a myth in the NBA, especially before the mid-point of the season. Whatever happens in any particular outing in an 82-game season has virtually no bearing in the playoffs, when records and memories are erased.

Still, the sight of the Miami Heat taking the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday will make hearts pound a little faster among the Pacers and their fan base. While it won't define the Pacers, it will qualify as a measuring stick of sorts.

Beyond that, it should be fun. The biggest game of the season for the Pacers, for sure, and the most entertaining for the home fans. It's Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the team that came from behind to eliminate the Pacers from the second round of the playoffs last season, returning to Bankers Life Fieldhouse to renew acquaintances.

“If we can't get up for this game, then we really aren't prepared for the season,” Paul George said. “This is a game we really should be ready for.”

Miami leads the Southeast Division with a 23-9 record. The Pacers lead the Central with a 20-14 record, but it would be negligent to ignore the figurative asterisk of their strength of schedule. Only three of their victories have come over teams that now have winning records (Chicago, Portland and Memphis) and only four have come over teams that would be suiting up if the playoffs began today (add Milwaukee). Of the top three teams in each conference they have played four, and lost all six games by an average of 10.7 points.

Miami, meanwhile, is the defending NBA champion with the reigning Most Valuable Player (James), and has the best record in the Eastern Conference. On the other hand it only has the fourth best record in the league, and is just 7-6 on the road. Its last three road games resulted in a 10-point loss to Detroit, a 19-point loss to Milwaukee and a two-point win over Orlando. It is a powerful team, but vulnerable.

So, the game against the Heat is meaningful, and perhaps revealing in a one-out-of-82 kind of way, but not as a preview of anything that might occur in the playoffs. Who knows what the respective rosters might be by then, given the potential for injuries and trades?

History proves the lack of long-term significance of games such as this one. For example:

The Pacers lost three-of-four games to the Heat last season, which turned out to be puny indication of their ability to compete with them in the playoffs, when they went up 2-1 in the series and led at halftime of Game 4.

Late in the 1997-98 season, on April 13, the Pacers went to the United Center and beat Chicago by nine points, which was supposed to prove they could win there. But they lost all four games there in conference finals, including the Game 7 heartbreaker.

Back in the 1993-94 season, they lost all four games to New York yet went on to take a 3-2 lead over the Knicks in the conference finals before succumbing in seven games.

Still, a game such as this – as well as Thursday's game against New York – should bring out the best in the Pacers, at least the Granger-less version of them, and it will be interesting to see what that might be. Individually, it will be most interesting to see what it brings out of George.

Today, George is a potential All-Star who averages 18.4 points and is the Pacers' greatest all-around threat. But in the playoff series eight months ago he was an offensive afterthought, focused mostly on defending Wade. He averaged 10 points over the six games, shooting 37 percent.

“I just wasn't aggressive,” he said. “I was just trying to play defense.”

George got with his agent, Aaron Mintz, over the summer and watched every play of every game of the series in Mintz's office. They saw that Wade had played off of him, but he hadn't taken advantage, hadn't looked for his shot or attacked the basket in the halfcourt. The result was that he devoted more time than ever to ballhandling and shooting in his off-season workouts.

Now, with Danny Granger out, George will match up with James, who averages 26.5 points. George's plan is to try to keep James from getting too many easy transition baskets, and to play off him enough to encourage jump shots and keep him from barreling into the lane for dunks.

It will be a personal measuring stick, too. Student vs. mentor. Budding star vs. the best player in the world.

George spent part of his summer in China as part of the USA Basketball Select team that worked out with the National team that competed in the Olympics. He learned a lot from James there, intangibles that he has incorporated into his routines on and off the court. Diet. Training habits. Pre-game preparation. The overall approach of a champion.

“I guess that's what the elite players do,” he said.

By the end of the week, the Pacers should know more about where they stand among the elite teams. But only for now.

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