And the thing is, they’re probably right. Miami has, after all, won 45 of its last 48 games, including an 8-1 record in the playoffs. And since last year’s six-game struggle against the Pacers in the second round, Miami has gotten bigger, better and deeper, while Indiana has gotten younger and thinner.
Yeah, but …
It’s not impossible. It’s not even out of the realm of logic. It wouldn’t require multiple miracles to beat the Heat. What would it require?
>> It may be boring, but it works
There really isn’t much way to make defense and rebounding sound all that interesting, other than to point out those two areas generally are where a championship foundation is laid. Those just happen to be the Pacers’ greatest strengths, and they have been fully evident in the postseason.
Opponents thus far have averaged just 89.4 points on .416 shooting, which takes a lot of pressure away from the offense. The Pacers’ magic number has been 80 points in the playoffs – they’re 8-1 when reaching that number.
Indiana also has owned the boards, outrebounding opponents by an average of 14.1 in their wins. This is Miami’s greatest vulnerability. The Heat ranked 28th in rebound percentage during the regular season, while the Pacers were second.
>> Fab Five vs. Big Three
As the playoffs have worn on, Frank Vogel has leaned more and more on his starting lineup purely out of necessity, because outside of occasional contributions from D.J. Augustin, Sam Young and Ian Mahinmi, the bench has been largely unproductive.
Each starter led the team in scoring at least once in the New York series, a remarkable indicator of the Pacers’ balance. All five averaged double figures, from Lance Stephenson’s 11.7 to Paul George’s 19.5, but of course all five also averaged at least 35 minutes.
“Coach is really relying on us five to get things done and we’re playing more minutes,” said Roy Hibbert, who averaged 37.5 minutes against the Knicks, “but we’re a young team and we can handle it.”
>> The wildest of wild cards
Stephenson’s career-high 25-point outburst in Game 6 was clearly the best game of his career but hardly his only strong playoff performance. The least experienced Indiana starter has been hugely important to the team, averaging 11.3 points and 52 percent shooting in wins, compared to 6.8 points and 28 percent shooting in losses.
The exuberant youth will be matched up with wily, old, Dwyane Wade. On paper, this looks like a prohibitive mismatch for the Heat. But with Wade dealing with a gimpy knee and Stephenson’s confidence growing with each game, it may not work out that way.
“We all know how talented and gifted Lance is,” David West said. “All year when he plays well, we play well and we win. We understand he’s one of our main cogs in terms of the improvement this team has made.”
No one’s asking Stephenson to outplay Wade, but if he can keep this matchup close, keep Wade from being dominant, the Pacers will have a much better chance.
>> Tangible intangibles
- Where Miami has enjoyed two cakewalk series against the young Bucks and emaciated Bulls, the Pacers are coming off the kind of battle against New York that sharpens a team’s edge.
- After a seven-day layoff between rounds one and two, the Heat promptly came out flat and lost to Chicago in game 1. The layoff before this series begins is six days. It could happen again.
- By winning two of three from the Heat during the regular season, the Pacers do not lack confidence in their ability to match up with the league’s marquee team. They also carry over motivational fuel of letting a 2-1 lead, and a 10-point third-quarter lead in Game 4, get away.
- While the weight of expectation is squarely on the Heat, the Pacers can play with the relaxed freedom of the prohibitive underdog. Should they win one of the first two games in Miami, those factors will be amplified.
>> So, can they do it?
There are many, many sound and rational reasons to expect Miami to beat the Pacers in no more than six games.
Miami is the best team in the league, with two certain Hall of Famers in James and Wade and two more strong possibilities in Chris Bosh and Ray Allen. The Heat has only gotten better since beating the Pacers last year, and Indiana doesn’t have one of its biggest weapons in Danny Granger.
But it is becoming increasingly difficult to doubt these Pacers. There’s something about this team that makes you want to believe anything is possible.
Truth be told, it is.