Let me break it down.
On paper, the Heat won the season series, 3-1, with relative ease, but you could make an argument that the Pacers got better as the series went on and that it should have been 2-2. Personally, I don't put much stock in what a series should have been -- a win is a win and a loss is a loss.
Nonetheless, for those who do care, the Pacers were blown out 118-83 in Miami in game 1 and the gap between the two teams was as wide as the score suggested. In game 2 back in Indiana, the Pacers were blown out again with a slightly more respectable 105-90 scoreline, though this one was over by about half time.
In game 3, the Pacers headed to Miami with renewed confidence and almost pulled out a win. They were on their way to a rare victory when Dahntay Jones has a brain freeze and the Heat came back to send the game into overtime, where D-Wade hit an impossible shot almost at the buzzer to win it for Miami, 93-91 (OT).
Game 4 was a different story. The Pacers came out strong against the Heat and returned the favor, earning a well-deserved 105-90 win in Indiana after blowing the game open in the third quarter.
So the Pacers lost by 35, lost by 15, lost by 2 in OT and won by 15. For those who haven't noticed, they've improved against the Heat each and every game. But of course, the regular season doesn't mean a whole lot right now, though it must be comforting for the Pacers to know that they are capable of beating this Heat team whether at home or away.
Hyping it up
The Pacers obviously don't get much attention or respect in the NBA. This ESPN article talking about how the Pacers offer no selling point says it all. Sadly, it's not all untrue.
Anyhoo, the Pacers have been doing their part to hype this series up. This Pacers team has shown that they love to talk, and throughout the season, coach Frank Vogel and guys like Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert have talked up their team like few others can in the league. Initially, I put it down to Vogel's motivational techniques and the team's false bravado -- but now I am starting to think that they truly believe in it, which is crucial if the Pacers want to have any chance in this series.
Here is some of the trash the Pacers have been talking before the start of the series.
1. Coach Vogel calling the Heat "the biggest floppers in the NBA." In a plea to the refs to make this an even series, Vogel explained: "Every drive to the basket, they have guys not making a play on the ball, but sliding in front of drivers. Oftentimes, they're falling down even before contact is even being made. It'll be interesting to see how the series is officiated."
2. Coach Vogel saying the teams are pretty evenly matched: "We are not viewing this in any way, shape or form like a David versus Goliath type of meeting." He said the Pacers "feel like we're one of the best teams in the league," and the series will be "two heavyweights going toe to toe."
3. Danny Granger saying the Pacers are not the underdogs. "I don't think we're underdogs by any means," he says. "Miami has more recognition with their Big Three guys, but I think we're a good team as well." Granger also said, "We actually have a better record than Miami does after the All-Star break."
4. George Hill saying it's not an upset if the Pacers win the series: "I don't feel like it's an upset if we win."
5. And this gem from Roy Hibbert, who will be the Pacers' biggest key in the series: "We didn't do it the easy way. It took time. We didn't do this by signing a couple of superstars."
In response, LeBron James simply said this: "I don't think they've given us too many problems, personally. We played some great ball against them. I think we gave them more problems than they gave us."
The Pacers, like any other team in the NBA, are going to struggle against Miami's Big Three. The Pacers don't have the superstars of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the LA Lakers or even the New York Knicks. They don't have the relentless defensive intensity of the Chicago Bulls. They don't have the experience or the poise of the San Antonio Spurs. Whichever way you look at it, the Heat have to be heavy favorites simply because they have James, Wade and Bosh.
What they do have is a team with an above-average starting five comprising former All-Stars (David West, Danny Granger), a current borderline All-Star (Roy Hibbert), a potential future All-Star (Paul George) and a very solid starter who has played for one of the best organizations in the NBA (George Hill). They have a decent but sporadic bench -- speedy scorer Leandro Barbosa, speedy PG Darren Collison and super hustlers Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Amundson. If necessary, they've also got Dahntay Jones and AJ Price. It's a fairly even lineup that is physical and can be potent offensively when things are clicking, but can also be quite atrocious when the shots aren't falling.
On the other hand, the Heat faces a huge drop off on their roster after their Big Three. Not to say they don't have capable players -- Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier are all extremely capable -- but the Heat will go as far as the Big Three, and arguable, just LeBron, can take them.
The Big Three offers a lot of defensive issues for this Pacers team, who will have to find a way to play superb TEAM defense to slow them down. No one on the Pacers can guard the now three-time MVP LeBron James. He's too quick for David West, too big for Dahntay Jones, too strong for Paul George, and too much of everything for Danny Granger. None of them can really stop D-Wade either, who will probably be even more dangerous than LeBron in this series. And Bosh is too quick offensively for any of the Pacers' big guys, especially David West.
So for the Pacers to have any real chance, they'll need to play bigger and better than the sum of their parts, and perhaps be bestowed with a bit of luck here and there. Roy Hibbert is the key. The 7'2" big man towers over every Heat player, especially starting center Joel Anthony, who stands at just 6'9". For the Pacers to pull off the impossible, Hibbert needs to have the series of his career at both ends of the floor. He doesn't need to score 20-25 points a game, but he'll need to get enough touches to keep the Heat defense honest and spread the offense. He'll also need to protect the rim, because you know LeBron and Wade are going to be attacking all night. However, whether Hibbert will step up is another question. The big fella was supposed to tear up the Dwight Howard-less Magic in round one, but only averaged 11 points for the series. Sure, he also averaged 10.8 rebounds and 3.8 blocks, but 11 points is simply not going to be enough against the Heat.
Another guy who could be key is Darren Collison (coming off possibly his best game this year in the close out game against the Magic), who possesses the speed the Pacers need to disrupt Miami at both ends. Paul George, who had a disappointing first round, could be the X-factor if he steps up. Barbosa, who only played in one game in a Pacers uniform against the Heat (14 points in a 105-90 win), will be the key spark plug for the offense of the second unit.
Game 1 is going to be key. If the Heat comes out firing and blasts the Pacers out of the building, which is actually not unlikely, then this could be a brutal 4 or 5 game series. That's how good I think this Heat team is and how much trouble they pose for this Pacers squad.
But if the Pacers come out with the same mentality they had against the Bulls last year -- ie, super physical, not backing down, protecting the paint, fighting for every loose ball and possession like the underdog they are -- then this could be a 6 or 7 game series, especially because guys like David West, George Hill and Leandro Barbosa have provided the Pacers with a certain mental toughness and stability that they lacked against the Bulls. And if the Pacers can steal a game in Miami (most likely game 1), then it's not beyond the realm of possibility that the Pacers could stun the world. We've seen Miami collapse before, and if the Pacers can rattle them early then you never know what might happen.
However, the truth is, the Heat are title favorites for a reason and too much has to go right for the Pacers (and too much has to go wrong for the Heat) before we can legitimately talk upset. I'm already very proud of how the Pacers have come this season, and all I can hope for is that they put in an effort that doesn't let down their fans. My guess is that the Pacers will give it all they've got, but in the end the Heat are going to be too strong and too determined. Barring a series-changing injury, I see the Heat pulling it out in 6 games.