The Least East: NBA Conference Final Preview

By: Daniel Reynolds

INT – DEEP IN THE SAME PAGE BUNKER, SOMEWHERE OFF THE COAST OF A SMALL ISLAND IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC OR AT A CAFE IN THE ANNEX

Reynolds: Alllllll by myseeeelf!!!

Grant: Ahem.

Reynolds: Oh, ummm, hi Dan. How long you been standing there?

Grant: ….

Reynolds: Heh, that long huh?

Grant: You think you know a person, but then…

Reynolds: Basketball! Playoffs! NBA! AMIRITE?!

Grant: I’ll see myself out.

Reynolds: ….. phew…. thought he’d never leave.

Sing it with me now, guys!

Sing it with me now, guys!

MIAMI HEAT vs. INDIANA PACERS

Is this the matchup the Indiana Pacers wanted? Do they strike you as a team that was secretly hoping that somehow the irradiated Chicago Bulls would manage to topple the Miami Heat? Or that some Space Jam-like situation would siphon the talents away from Dwyane Wade and Lebron James (Chris Bosh would keep his talent in this scenario)? I ask because I want to confirm the answer I have formed in my mind. I think these Indiana Pacers want the Miami Heat. I think it is a matchup that they have craved for years now, dating back to the infamous Lance Stephenson “choke” incident, the signing of David West for toughness, and the grooming of Paul George. When you can seen the tsunami of your destruction gathering within view, you start preparing, right? The Pacers have been preparing.

In the NBA playoffs, a lot is made of team identity. Oh sure, it’s the kind of thing used to sell T-shirts to fans, but it also sells the team to itself. It gives them something to buy into, something to unite around, something to (as cheesy as this sounds) fight for. In the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls had an identity, and were lauded appropriately even after getting beaten in five games. Conversely, the New York Knicks had an identity but suffered defeat after going all Memento-like on their game plan. The Pacers, who were busy last weekend putting the Knicks to bed, have an identity. They play big, they play in the passing lanes, they rush to the perimeter, they take away the easy shots, and they funnel, always funnel the action into help defense. They are not lights out shooters (I mean, they employ DJ Augustin AND Tyler Hansbrough), but they have just enough savvy to understand which shots to take. If I’m being honest with myself I can announce I have a little soft spot for the Pacers. They are a team of mostly late round draft picks and secondhand parts (the immortal Augustin was their highest ranked, drafted ninth). They know who they want to play, and how they’ll win because they know themselves. And in an ideal universe, maybe that would be enough.

But how do you solve a problem like the Miami Heat? Look, the NBA is a certain way now: defenses collapse on the paint, efficiency is high rewarded, three-point shooting is at a premium and players should either be highly skilled in diverse areas of the game or super skilled in specific skills. You can hide a Steve Novak on defense if it means 45% three point shooting from him on the other end. Now, did the NBA sway this way as a result of rule changes? Was it a renewed quest for identifying market inefficiencies with statistical analysis? Or, more simply, has a player like Lebron James completely warped the game around his era defining skills? Did the path of the NBA shape James into the player he has become or is the league merely scrambling to match him?

Let’s take a step back. Minus James, the Heat are a solid basketball team. They have all of the key building blocks: veteran role players (Udonis Haslem, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mike Miller’s corpse), useful young players (Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole), and, as a cherry on top, an All-Star calibre perimeter player (Dwyane Wade) and post player (Chris Bosh). The Heat team just described is still dangerous (a huge caveat: Wade may be playing on one leg right now). That they are also coached by an innovative young coach in Erik Spoelstra is, well, I’d say gravy but I’m mixing food metaphors. My point is: the Heat are a well-balanced basketball meal.

And then you add the best basketball player on earth. Good luck Indiana.

The Pacers are going to need a lot of moments like this one.

The Pacers are going to need a lot of moments like this one.

Keys to the series: For the Pacers I won’t even say something obvious like ‘play defense’. At this point, the Pacers can only really rely on their defense to get them anywhere. The enduring image (besides a shot clanging off the rim, or being dribbled off somebody’s foot out of bounds) of the Pacers/Knicks series was man-giant Hibbert completely walling off Carmelo as he came in for a clutch heroball dunk. That’s the kind of back breaking play that ends teams, and it had to be hugely encouraging for the Pacers that it was Kindly Roy Hibbert (his official full name) providing that kind of toughness.

As with last year, the Pacers can physically challenge the Heat. David West can push Bosh around (OK, OK, everyone can push Bosh around), and Hibbert can theoretically be that aforementioned wrecker on both ends. Paul George can, let’s say, affect Lebron at least a little bit. And you just know Lance Stephenson is ready to jump through some Wade shaped brick walls. But, the King stay the King. The Pacers will need their offense (which has been turning in shooting percentages that look more like summer temperatures) to soar to the level of their defense. It will still not be enough.

And we haven’t even talked about the NBA nightmare scenario of an Indiana/Memphis final. David Stern just put a hit out on me for even suggesting it

Prediction: Miami in 6

—————————

Reynolds: And finally, keep checking the site for our final Three for 3 of the season in preparation for the Finals.

Grant: Gonna be a good one.

Reynolds: Dan! Glad you’re here. You ready? [cues music]

Grant: I’m not gonna sing.

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