A few months ago, the Indiana Pacers, the Miami Heat, the media and NBA fans at large were at a consensus that there was a light coming at the end of the tunnel in what had been a brutally underwhelming Eastern Conference. This was because all of these contingents had penciled in their calendars a seven-game war between these two clubs coming at the Eastern Conference Finals, a spectacle not to be missed in light of the heightened stakes and tensions following last year’s showdown.
To say a lot has changed wouldn’t be doing the last few tumultuous months of the NBA season justice. Miami has waffled between bouts of dominance and indifference while Indiana has altogether fallen apart, losing their defensive identity and playing inept offense.
If Miami, i.e. Dwayne Wade, can stay healthy, they’re still going to be a very tough team to beat four times in a series. Wade has missed 27 games so far this season due to a multitude of ailments, the primary one of concern being his knees, which have repeatedly plagued him for the past few seasons. When Wade has played, he’s still been an All-Star caliber talent, registering an impressive 22+ PER, which though significantly down from his career peaks, still makes him the most dominant shooting guard in the East. As for LeBron James, it’s been more of the same, registering insane numbers fans take far too much for granted, that would be MVP-caliber in just about any other year. It’s also been more of the same for Chris Bosh, except that he’s added the three-point shot to his arsenal. Bosh’s attempts are all the way up from his career average of 0.7 and last year’s mark of 1.0 to 2.8, and despite improving only to a relatively meager 34 percent, it is a real weapon that will rear its head in the playoffs. As hinted at earlier, beyond Wade, it’s the bench that’s a further question mark, with both young (Norris Cole) and old (Ray Allen and Shane Battier) submitting subpar seasons, that threaten them from registering extended minutes in the playoffs. Still, with the league’s best offense and 11th best defense, Miami looms as a real contender and the preeminent favorite to make it to the conference finals.
Indiana is a different, darker story. While they are still going to finish with the league’s stingiest defense, their offense has fallen off of a cliff and is going to wind up 22nd in the league. The Pacers have also had the second worst offense since early February, in front of only hapless Philadelphia. Part of that can be explained by Paul George’s torrid start and rapid fall. Luis Scola has not been the offensive spark plug off the bench the team was looking for and Roy Hibbert’s offensive game has failed once again to take a step forward. Simply put, the Pacers don’t really have anyone for which it is an easy task to put the ball in the bucket. One has to think that in bringing over Evan Turner, the idea was to get some offense to hold up bench units, but Turner’s defense has been so putrid that his competent offense hasn’t compensated enough to get him minutes.
For the Pacers, a lot of their survival is going to depend on matchups. Not only is finishing at the top huge for them in that it could give them home court advantage in the conference finals, but that they draw a first round matchup with a punch-less Atlanta squad that aren’t likely to take the proceedings beyond five games. Such a breeze through is going to be a necessity for Indiana to regain their confidence and play up to the potential they demonstrated early in the season. Then it’s a matter who out of the middle-tier survives the next round. Chicago, a team built around its defense that is a slightly more tenacious version of Indiana, would be the best matchup, but still could spell trouble. From there, Toronto, Brooklyn and – to a lesser extent – Washington and Charlotte should they pull an upset all have far better than a puncher’s chance. Only the latter two would register as a surprise. The best case scenario would be to draw one of those latter two teams that they could outlast after what figures to be a fairly easy path through Atlanta. At the end of the day, Indiana has no business worrying about matchups because they have so much to sort out themselves and just need to get back to playing better basketball. Let’s see if a likely walloping of Atlanta changes things.
Contact Pete Koehlerm at [email protected]