Friday, May 16, 2014

The Matchup We Have All Been Waiting For, Right?

Sunday May 18th. 3 o'clock. Fans of defense and smashmouth basketball undoubtedly have this date and time penciled in their calendars. The top two teams in the East are set to duke it out in a matchup with no shortage of compelling story lines.

James versus George

The champs versus the underdogs.

The flashy, big market Heat versus the blue collar, small market Pacers.

America's Riviera versus America's heartland.

The majority of NBA coverage related to the East revolved around these two teams. Many experts predicted that this would finally be the Pacers' year. Others predicted that nothing could stand in the way of Lebron and the Heat. Aside from the mediocrity of the other teams in the East, much of this buildup came from last year's Conference Finals. The upstart Pacers gave the Heat all they could handle in that 7 game classic. They out-hustled the Heat. They out-rebounded the Heat. Roy Hibbert looked like a boy amongst men for much of the series. More significant than almost beating the champs in a competitive series was the fact that the Pacers challenged Miami's very identity.

Can a team with size beat the league's poster child for "small ball?"

The Pacers came awfully close last year. Their starting 5 outplayed their Heat counterparts significantly in that series. Their size and athleticism clearly posed problems for Miami. Indiana's bench; not so much. Miami, not normally known for their depth thoroughly dominated the Pacers' second unit. Given the fact that the Pacers' bench was ranked second to last in the league, this shouldn't have come as a surprise. Being that the ultimate goal is not to almost win a championship, Larry Bird addressed this glaring deficiency by bringing in CJ Watson, Chris Copeland, and Luis Scola in the offseason. Before the trade deadline, Bird essentially traded a struggling Danny Granger for a (statistically) more efficient Evan Turner.

The Pacers now had a much improved bench. It's a wrap, right?

For about 45 games, that appeared to be the case. Then the Pacers began to spectacularly fall apart. Their once adequate offense regressed to god awful. Their potent defense regressed to just above average. A team once known for sharing the ball and mental toughness suddenly looked selfish and fragile. Losses piled up and speculation abounded. Perhaps losing Granger meddled with chemistry. Perhaps the team began to believe it's own press. Whatever the reason, Indiana has struggled to regain their dominant form for any considerable period of time since the All-Star break.

Miami also had its share of struggles this season. After the All-Star break, they had a comparable losing streak and massive decline in their normally superb defense. Their role players seemed unsure and Dwayne Wade had trouble both staying healthy and fitting in when he did play. As with the Pacers, speculation abounded as to why the champs were struggling. Had the 3 consecutive trips to the Finals taken a toll on the team? Were they "coasting?" Was the Heat's lack of depth and size finally catching up to them? Was Wade too injury prone to contribute for one more championship run?

As cliched as it sounds, the Playoffs are a whole new season and winning is the ultimate cure-all. Regular season drama and losing streaks fall by the wayside as long as a team wins. For the Miami Heat, this appeared to be the case. In the first round, the Heat faced the Bobcats, a defensive-minded team with a dominant center. Miami swept them. Their defense looked sound. Lebron looked like the best player in the world and Dwayne Wade looked healthy. In the second round, the Heat handily beat the Nets, the only regular season team to sweep them in the Big Three era.

The Playoffs have been more of the same for Indiana. The top-seeded Pacers came incredibly close to being upset in the 1st Round by an Atlanta Hawks team with a losing record. Indiana's defense was non-existent in that series and Roy Hibbert was largely ineffective guarding a center who can hit outside shots like, say Chris Bosh. In the second round, the Pacers often looked flat and unfocused as they barely held off the 5th seeded Washington Wizards.

The good news is that this isn't NASCAR. The outcome of previous rounds have no bearing on deciding a champion in the NBA. Each series is its own entity and the Pacers have another shot at the champs. This time they have home court advantage and an improved bench. On paper, these are the two most complete teams in the East. The teams also hate each other in a way that is both rare and refreshing in today's bromance-filled NBA. If there is any justice in the sports world, the Pacers will regain their mojo and give us fans one more classic series.

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