I waited a couple of days for the dust to settle after that New York series to ponder whether the Indiana Pacers have a leigitmate shot at upsetting the defending NBA champs Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals this year. I have not yet seen a single expert daring to pick the Pacers in this 7-game series, but to the Pacers' credit, there are no predictions for sweeps either. It's going to be 5, 6 or 7 games, but the victor, in the end, will no doubt be Miami. Or so we are led to believe.
The majority of "experts" also picked the Knicks to beat the Pacers, and but for a New York-like scoring binge in game 2 and a George Hill concussion in game 5, it actually turned out to be a rather one-sided series in favor of the Pacers.
This is not the same team that struggled to finish the year and the one that looked very vulnerable in the first few games of the first round against the Atlanta Hawks. These Pacers appear locked in, and while their offense still comes and goes, that world-class defense they are famous for is back -- and it will be needed if the Pacers are going to have a chance.
The truth is, Miami is favored for a big reason, and his name is LeBron James. Paul George could be the best wing defender in the world, but the best he could hope to do in this series is to relatively "contain" Lebron with a lot of help from his teammates, especially by funneling James into the best rim defender in the game, Roy Hibbert. But as long as LeBron is on the court, the odds of the Pacers advancing are slim.
The way I see it, if the Pacers are going to win the series, they will need a lot of things to go right for them and some things to go wrong for the Heat. The margin of error will be as thin as a piece of paper.
First of all, the Pacers will need to dominate the boards, especially on the offensive end. This Pacers team misses a lot of shots, and those second chance points will be key to the series. Reducing the Heat's second chance points will also be huge. The Heat are seriously undersized and if the Pacers can bully them under the ring it will give them a much better chance to succeed in this series.
Second, turnovers will need to be kept to a minimum. The Pacers are notorious for finding creative ways to give away the ball, and the Heat are just about unstoppable when they get their transition and fast break game going. If the Pacers don't take care of the ball this series could get ugly in a hurry. If George Hill does not continue to feel the effects of that concussion it will definitely help, but the whole team needs to protect the ball at all times.
Third, the Pacers starters will need to stay out of foul trouble. This will be a huge factor for the Pacers. If Paul George gets in early foul trouble, the Pacers will have to call upon Sam Young to guard LeBron. That sentence speaks for itself. If Roy Hibbert gets in early foul trouble, there is still Ian Mahinmi, a poor-man's version of Hibbert, but if Mahinmi gets in foul trouble it's pretty much over for the Pacers. Staying on the floor might be the biggest key for this Pacers team.
Fourth, free throw shooting. The Pacers have had some shocking free throw shooting games recently, and the biggest culprit has been Paul George, one of the team's supposed closers. George has not shot well from the floor, but that could be because he's expending all his energy on defense. But games where he is shooting 1-3, 4-7, 5-8 and 3-9 from the line are not going to cut it (that's actual numbers from 4 of his last 5 games). To be successful, the Pacers need to shoot close to 80% from the line for the series -- at least. No more 19-33 free throw shooting nights (like in game 5 against the Knicks). Points won't come easily against the Heat, so free points should never be wasted.
Fifth, Roy Hibbert and David West will need to have a big offensive series. Paul George will have his hands full on defense with LeBron. If he can score as well, great, but that's not his primary objective. George Hill might have a great shooting night or two (like the 26 points he put up in game 4 against the Knicks), but he's not going to do it on a nightly basis. Lance Stephenson showed what he could do in closing out the Knicks in game 6, but for all we know right now he might never have another game like that in his life. So that leaves David West, who averaged 22.7 against the Heat in 3 games this season, to shoulder the offensive output. I mention Hibbert as well because the Heat have no one on their roster over 6'11 (and that's Chris Bosh, not exactly a bruising post defender), and only 3 guys 6'10" and over (the others bring Chris Andersen and Rashard Lewis). Hibbert SHOULD be able to score against this Miami defense. He did for a while in last year's series but Miami adjusted well to shut him down in the final 3 games. He'll have to put up some points this year too.
Sixth, the bench will need to not suck so bad. They don't have to be great. They don't have to be good. They just need to not suck. The Pacers starters will hold their own against any team, but whenever they shift to the bench I start to get nervous. DJ Augustin just needs to hit his open threes. Tyler Hansbrough just needs to be effective with his hustle plays and get under the Heat's skin. Ian Mahinmi just needs to rebound and protect the rim. Sam Young just needs to provide a few minutes of solid D. That's it.
Dywane Wade's injury woes will also be key. He didn't look so great against the Bulls, but he didn't need to be, which is scary. I still have nightmares on some of the insane shots Wade hit in last year's series. If can return to that kind of form it's good night for the Pacers. But if he's a shadow of his former self that will really allow the Pacers to focus more of their energy on LeBron.
So yeah, that's a long list of things that have to go right for the Pacers for them to win this series. It's probably going to be Miami in 5 or 6, but I'm hoping the Pacers can push them to 7.