Doppleganger Pacers

New Hickory.jpg

I've been having a hard time this fall. Don't worry, it's nothing serious. My NBA league pass hasn't been working so I've been unable to watch any Pacers games this season. It's been hard, but I get all the latest recaps and updates from my ESPN Sports Center App and on the weekly Pacers podcast, The Undebeatables. 

Since last Friday's game against the Heat was aired on ESPN and I pay for a cable subscription*, I have access to the Watch ESPN app. I heated up some leftover Thai, popped open a beer, turned on my Roku and watched my boys in blue and gold go up against the Miami Heat. 

So imagine my surprise when instead of my beloved Pacers playing against the Heat, a team dressed in Red and Gold with the word "Hickory" on their chests was instead on the court? Where were my beloved Pacers? A team, with just "Hickory" on their uniforms, seemed to have taken the place of the entire Pacers squad. 

Now, at first I was obviously disappointed. But, I must say, the boys from Hickory played very well. And in many ways bore a striking resemblance to the Pacersnot just in appearances but also in playing styles. 

Hickory beat the Miami Heat, which for some reason, the Pacers were able to take credit for that win, so thanks guys! 

*Don't fact check this

The Good Doctor's Round 2 Predictions

East

#1 Indiana vs. #5 Washington

Match-up to watch: John Wall vs. George Hill/Paul George. Wall has been electric this year, having figured out how to vary his blazing speed AND knock down jump shots with regularity. Limiting his paint penetration, and thus the Wizards potential for success, will be key for the Pacers.

Coolest potential subplot: The re-emergence of Roy Hibbert from basketball oblivion. After Game 1, this seems nearly impossible. However, I (foolishly) believe that Big Roy can have a moment in these playoffs, but his opportunities to so may be limited going forward.

Prediction: Pacers in 6. EFF! I should’ve taken Pacers in 7 when I had the chance. 

 

#2 Miami vs. #6 Brooklyn

Match-up to watch: LeBron James vs. Joe Johnson/Paul Pierce. LBJ officially relinquished the MVP belt, and be certain he is pissed. That usually means trouble for opponents, and it will be for Brooklyn. But, the Nets have the rare luxury of having two dudes with the requisite size to bother James when he’s trying to score AND make him work a little on the defensive end. It probably still won’t be enough to keep him from averaging a 30-12-8 for the series.

Coolest potential subplot: The last five minutes of every game. This isn’t so much a subplot, as it is the main narrative. Most of these games will be close. Both teams have vets that have been in these situations a billion times. Who will execute the best in crunch time?

Prediction: Heat in 7. They’re just good. And, oh-by-the-way, Wade got to rest for a week after they dispatched the Boobcats with little trouble.

 

West

#1 San Antonio vs. #5 Portland

Match-up to watch: Tim Duncan vs. LaMarcus Aldridge. It’s as if The Big Fundamental will be playing himself after a trip through the way-back machine. LMA is playing at a ridiculous level, and Timmy will certainly have his hands full in trying to slow him. One key may be making LMA do some work on the defensive end, a job he can do, but does not enjoy.

Coolest potential subplot: The scoring contest that will take place between Tony Parker and Damian Lillard. As predicted by yours truly, Lillard shines in the playoffs. He nailed the series winner against the Rockets and averaged nearly 26 PTS and 7 ASTS. Parker meanwhile put up a pedestrian 20 and 5, but wasn’t facing the swiss cheese defense of Portland. Those that love point guard play should really enjoy Round 2 of the Western Conference Playoffs.

Prediction: Spurs in 6. Sorry Nico and Dave, but the ride ends here. Unlike the Rockets, the Spurs can get stops when they need them.

 

#2 Oklahoma City vs. #3 Los Angeles

Match-up to watch: Chris Paul vs. Russell Westbrook. Even before CP3 exploded in Game 1, I was ridiculously excited to watch these two go at it. Both are super talented, we know this. What takes this to the next level is the competitive motor that both of these guys have, along with the downright nasty streak that each possesses. I would not be surprised if several scruffles break out between these two. Hopefully, it also takes their play to even more transcendent levels. 

Coolest potential subplot: KD’s defense of the MVP trophy (and continued middle finger extension towards The Oklahoman). In Round 1, KD faced the phenomenal defense of Tony Allen and the Grizzlies, averaging “only” 29 a night. Here, he’s facing Matt Barnes and Jared Dudley. Um...expect that average to increase.

Prediction: Clippers in 6. I just think Doc Rivers is going to take Scott Brooks behind the coaching woodshed and teach him a thing or two.

The Good Doctor's Round 1 Predictions

East

#1 Indiana vs. #8 Atlanta

Match-up to watch: Clearly it’s the Pero “land of” Antic “-quity” against the struggling Roy Hibbert. Antic can straight stroke it from deep, which is a difficult defensive assignment for Hibbs and pulls him away as a help rim protector to boot. Hibbert will HAVE to make Atlanta pay on the other end to justify his being on the floor.

Coolest potential subplot: The George Hill vs. Jeff Teague battle. Though a couple years his senior, Hill seems to play with an extra chip on his shoulder against Teague (or any other Indy PG that went to more highly-touted high school and collegiate programs). Maybe this is just the challenge Hill needs to snap out of his funk.

Prediction: Pacers in 6. Indy is definitely better than this team and will win the series, but they’re not playing well enough to sweep anyone.

 

#2 Miami vs. #7 Charlotte

Match-up to watch: Al Jefferson vs. the Birdman-Haslem-Oden pupu platter. Big Al has killed it this year and demands a double team every possession. He has the potential to win a game by himself.

Coolest potential subplot: McBob’s antics. Josh McRoberts has been very effective this year, somewhat epitomizing the scrappy nature of this Bobcats team. How many T’s does he draw? Can he lure LBJ into a mini-scuffle and a suspension?

Prediction: Miami in 5. Charlotte hasn’t beaten Miami since the big 3 took their talents to south beach. They get one, finally, but only because Miami rests Wade and/or gets bored.

 

#3 Toronto vs. #6 Brooklyn

Match-up to watch: Amir Johnson vs. Paul Pierce. Brooklyn has played Pierce at the 4 for more than half the season to great success. The ability of Toronto to deal with this strange line-up will be critical to the outcome of the series.

Coolest potential subplot: Jason Kidd’s ability to handle a playoff series as a coach. We all saw how he struggled out of the gates to coach an NBA team. The playoffs are a whole other animal. How will he deal with game-to-game adjustments? Luckily for him, Dwayne Casey on the other bench has just as little experience.

Prediction: Toronto in 7. The basketball gods hate tanking. Brooklyn pussed out of a potential playoff re-match with the Bulls, and they will pay the price with another first round exit.

 

#4 Chicago vs. #5 Washington

Match-up to watch: John Wall vs. Kirk Hinrich. Allright, Johnny, you broke out a bit this year. How do you play on the big stage? This is a match-up you should dominate and stake your claim as the best player in this series. Can you do it?

Coolest potential subplot: PLAYOFF BASKETBALL IN THE DISTRICT!!!!! Although, people here seem more bummed that the Caps are missing the NHL playoffs than they are that the Wiz climbed to the 5th seed. Will they actually have a home court advantage? There are tons of stupid Bulls fans in and around DC.

Prediction: Chicago in 6. Los Bulls just have the experience edge here. There will be at least three games that come down to the wire, and I bet Chicago takes all three. I don’t trust Randy Whitman as far as I can throw him. 

 

WEST

#1 San Antonio vs. #8 Dallas

Match-up to watch: Tim Duncan vs. Dirk Nowitzski. Is it 2005? If you watched these two dudes play all year, you might think so. Nothing in particular to pay attention to, just enjoy these future Hall of Famers do their thing.

Coolest potential subplot: Monty Ellis on a big stage. Monty is playing at a much more efficient level this year, and his still almost impossible to guard if he gets it going. He’s been stuck on shitty teams most of his career, if he can lead the Mavs to an upset, lots of people will know his name.

Prediction: San Antonio in 6. Dallas is good enough to steal a couple of games, but the Spurs are just on another level and have the experience, skill and professionalism to take care of business in their two-month quest for a 5th ring.

 

#2 Oklahoma City vs. #7 Memphis

Match-up to watch: Marc Gasol vs. Kendrick Perkins. OK, Perk, here’s the series where you earn your money. The NBA intelligentsia thinks it’s clear the Thunder should play small, but Scotty Brooks has stuck by his man Perk for just such situations. Can he slow down Gasol and help OKC win quickly?

Coolest potential subplot: The chess match that is Brooks vs.Joerger. Brooks is apparently on the hotseat based on his aforementioned penchant for playing Perkins too much. On the other side, this is Joerger’s first trip to the playoffs. Will he get the pants coached off him?

Prediction: OKC in 7. The Thunder might finish these guys off sooner, but the Grizzlies just fight soooo hard and give themselves a chance to win every game.

 

#3 Los Angeles vs. #6 Golden State

Match-up to watch: Chris Paul vs. Stephen Curry. How in the hell will Curry deal with the size and strength of Paul? He certainly will make CP3 work super hard on the defensive end, but will he limit him enough. 

Coolest potential subplot: Hopefully, a lot of Curry/Crawford heat-check games. Both of these guys can light it up, and I’m hoping for at least one game when they trade threes for 7-8 straight possessions.

Prediction: LA in 5. I just think that the W’s won’t be able to deal with either Paul or Blake Griffin. The Clips have been playing very focused ball for a good month now and are ready to make the case that they belong in the upper echelon of title contenders.

 

#4 Houston vs. #5 Portland

Match-up to watch: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Terrance Jones. LMA was playing at an MVP level before the All-Star break, but then battled a bit of an injury. He seems to be back to form, which spells trouble for the Rockets. Can Jones limit him enough?

Coolest potential subplot: A shattering of the 3P FG attempts in a playoff game and series. Both of these teams launch it from deep a ton (26.6 a game for HOU, 25.3 for POR). 

Prediction: Portland in 6. I think that Portland plays slightly better defense than Houston, and that gives them the edge here.

A (non-verbal) conversation with David West

It’s a poorly kept secret that while we at The Undebeatbles love each Pacer unconditionally. One of our favorites is our spiritual and emotional leader, David West. I recently had the chance to sit down with the team’s leader in collective will, and here’s a snippet of the conversation we had.

The Doctor: David, thanks for sitting down and taking the time to talk. Not sure if you know this, but I’m actually a Xavier graduate as well. We actually overlapped a bit, and I even drove you in the shuttle a couple times. So, GO MUSKIES! Do you keep in touch with the team? How do you feel about their chances this year?

DW_xu_celebrate_1.jpg

The Doctor: OK, OK. I’m a little less bullish than you, but moving to the Big East will be good for the program overall. Enough reminiscing, let’s talk about these Pacers. Your role on this team is as a leader, veteran and mentor...does that make you feel old?

DW_angry_2.jpg

The Doctor: Whoa, big fella! Don’t overreact. I’m just saying we’re not spring chickens anymore. To be fair, you’re still killing it out there and leading this team to a 10-1 record. What are your general feelings about this team?

DW_goofy_celebration.jpg

The Doctor: I totally agree!!! Glad to hear that the feeling in the locker room is similar to the giddiness that we as fans have. I love watching this team play. You guys definitely pull for one another. Do you feel like you’re in the best sports relationship of your life? Like, do you buy each other surprise gifts and give random hugs and stuff?

DW_confused.jpg

The Doctor: Yeah, ok, maybe not. But you guys definitely get along, right? The chemistry seems amazing.

DW_fist_pump_2.jpg

The Doctor: Awesome. That’s especially good, because you’re going to need it to do the things this team wants to accomplish. There are teams out there standing in your way. Obviously, Miami has LeBron and are reigning champs, Brooklyn has a deep and experienced team, and Chicago just beat your pants off. Do you fear any of these teams?

DW_angry_3.jpg

The Doctor: That’s what I thought. Eff those guys. OK, David, I’ll let you get out of here. Good luck with the season, I look forward to celebrating in June!!!

DW_xu_celebrate_4.jpg

Taking Our Talents to South Beach

 Over the last 19 years, I have watched or listened to nearly 1,500 Pacer games, not including the 173 playoff games during that span. These games have affected me on different levels, ranging from being background noise while I slept to inundating me with anxiety. They have inspired both cursing and laughter. Over the years I have cheered raucously in arenas and clapped violently from my couch. I have shared great memories with friends; I have suffered alone.

The Pacers have pushed me to pace, to chain smoke, to drink too much. I have danced, hugged, screamed. I have wept bitter tears and tears of joy. But as with all things, with time passed, the games blend and fold upon one another until the years and the memories become one mass of Pacer games played. Until a DJ Augustine crossover could just as easily be a Travis Best crossover, and my lament about a slow moving center could apply to Rik Smits as well as to Roy Hibbert. Antonio Davis could even sub in for David West and I might not flinch. How many handwritten letters (sent and unsent) to Donnie Walsh, how many long-winded e-mails to friends, how many angry texts, until all the ink spilled is one story, one event, one grand game played out in my mind? 1,500 chances, 1,500 hopes, 1,500 frustrations, until Market Square Arena and Bankers Life Fieldhouse are one arena, and all the arenas across the league have become one court, a 94 by 50 foot wooden pallet, awash with the sweat and blood and sacrifice of dozens of men, that somehow paint not a portrait of a singular NBA basketball game, but paint a portrait of me—a 34-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy simultaneously one in time and space. These are my Pacers. This, too, is me. And so I watch, continue to watch, continue to add to the grand painting of accumulated and increasingly vague Pacer memories.

As I watched game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals, the trend continued. Spike Lee sat court side as though he hadn't left his seat since 1994. It was another game in which this current incarnation of the Pacers put together their recipe for victory—clamping down on defense, their offense enough to create separation, cruising their way to another double digit home win. And then it happened. Iman Shumpert hit three three-pointers in a row, and a ten point margin and a seeming win at hand, turned into a dogfight. Suddenly Carmelo Anthony's efficient and nearly superhuman offensive effort against the leagues best defense didn't seem a footnote in a losing effort. As New York's role players continued to rain threes into the fourth quarter, I couldn't bear to watch anymore.

I turned off the TV and turned on the radio so I could listen to Mark and Slick. They had cheered and lamented with me through the years, their voices had guided me through so many close games, I knew I had to be with them now. With 5:42 remaining in the game, the Pacers up 90-89, cold-all-series JR Smith hit a huge three to put New York up two and Slick yelled “dammit,” and my stomach flipped and my knees buckled. The three of us had been here before. Teams lose more than they win. To be a fan is to understand that you will be let down more often than not. The three of us had been let down together so many times. I had to sit, I had to pace, but more importantly I had to begin to prepare myself for what was to come. A Pacers team too inexperienced to win on this stage. “Dammit” is right, Slick. And so, with the young Pacers down two, Carmelo backing down Paul George on the low-post, spinning to the basket, our season on the brink, I held my breath, but deep down knew it was over. And then Big Roy Hibbert blocked Carmelo's dunk at the rim! Mark Boyle screamed “recycled!” as George gathered the loose ball, pushed it up the court, found Hill who passed to West on the left block who sent the ball to a wide open Lance Stephenson under the basket for two. We were all tied up. The crowd roared through my radio so it became difficult to hear Mark Boyle, as the Pacers ripped off an 11-2 run, leading to an unlikely win, led by the unlikeliest of heroes, Lance Stephenson.

Lance Stephenson, drafted in the second round by Larry Bird, was passed on by every NBA team, because in spite of his obvious physical talents, he was perceived as a knucklehead. He had maturity issues, and at the time, it was a huge risk by Bird, for a team desperately trying to reinvent its image. We had shipped out all the “thugs” and had brought in “good guys.” Off the bat, Stephenson had legal problems, pissed off his teammates, and seemed to bring tension and unease to the franchise. But Bird stayed steadfast, signed him to a cheap long-term deal and rolled the dice. When coach Frank Vogel inserted him into the starting lineup after Danny Granger went out with his season-ending knee injury, and Danny's presumed replacement Gerald Green seemed lost, it appeared more desperation than inspiration. And yet Lance was a revelation. He still made boneheaded mistakes, his offensive game was modest, defensively he occasionally got lost. But the early-season Pacers, a floundering team, had suddenly found some nasty, and in the process forged an identity. Five man rotational Plus/Minus stats show that with Lance in the starting lineup the Pacers were +288, better than any other lineup in the league outside of Oklahoma City starters at +291. So there you have it: Great story—troublemaker finds a home. But Game 6 against the Knicks was something I did not see coming. A poised, aggressive Stephenson produced a career high 25 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists, consistently driving to the basket at will, pressuring the Knicks defense, and in no small part helped secure the win for Indiana.

Out of the blue and gold fog that is my Pacers memory, certain games and moments emerge. And most often those memories codify because they stand out for their shock value: 25 points in the fourth quarter, 8 points in 9 seconds, the 40 footer, Memorial Day Miracle, Byron's shot that started it all. There was Tayshon's block, the 4 point play, Reggie's last game, The Brawl. What binds all of these moments, what makes them stand out from the rest, is that I didn't see them coming. I was wholly surprised. Game 6 against the Knicks the other night joins that list—for Lance's emergence, a recently concussed Hill gutting it out, West's creative and timely passing, George's feathery jumper, Roy's block, and the team's collective patience and poise. After all these jaded years and 1,500 some odd games, I can still be surprised. 

            During the series, the Indiana Pacers produced five different leading scorers in six games. They won as a team. This Indiana team is the first NBA team to make the Conference finals without a top-5 draft pick since 1994. But the Pacers have always won as a unit, a collection greater than their parts.  Since joining the NBA, their most notable star was a skinny guard who needed multiple screens to employ his unworldly talent for hitting big shots. Indiana teams over the last two decades have been built on depth and toughness and chemistry, and in as much, they compete, and have stayed largely relevant. Yet in the absence of a big name star, they have almost always been the underdog. The same is true today as it was 19 years ago. So what is the Pacers reward for upsetting the Knicks? A rematch with the Miami Heat and a chance to take on the most dominant basketball player on the planet, LeBron James.

MATCH UP VS. MIAMI

Last season James won the league MVP, an NBA championship, the Finals MVP, and an Olympic Gold Medal. He followed that up with one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. He led the Miami Heat in points (26.8, 4th in the NBA,) rebounds (8, second highest among wing players in NBA,) assist (7.3, 10th in the NBA), and field goal percentage, (.565, 5th in the NBA.) He finished with 1.7 steals a game, while behind Dwyane Wade, it was still good enough for 12th in the league. He ended the year number one in Player Efficiency Rating, an equation created by statistician John Hollinger, widely considered a useful tool to understand the overall impact of individual players. It was the seventh highest PER in NBA history, only topped by seasons from Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and LeBron himself.  During the 2012-13 season James had a run of six straight games in which he scored 30 points a game on 60% shooting from the field, a stretch of dominance that no one else has achieved in NBA history. Awarded his fourth MVP at years end, James landed in the elite company of all-time greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain, and joins only Russell in winning 4 MVP's in 5 years. LeBron led his team on a 27 game win streak. And one gets the feeling he is not done. His interest seems less in beating the competition, and more in perfecting the game. He's a basketball nerd—a student of the game and it's history, as well as a stat geek, eager to learn and evolve based on advanced analytics. Olympic coach Mike Krzyzewski called LeBron brilliant, and on top of that he just happens to be one of the most gifted physical athletes the NBA has ever seen. LeBron James is not only the most dominant player of his era, at the age of 28, is already in the debate for any era.

James is flanked by Dwyane Wade, a top-5 shooting guard all-time. (Jordan, Kobe, the Logo, are the top three for sure. If you leave Wade out of the top five, he's only competing with Sam Jones and Pistol Pete Maravich, so is at the very least number six on any list. In my mind, Wade has the hardware over Pete.) Wade finished 7th in overall PER and he's the Heat's second best player. Add in Chris Bosh, All-Star that quietly put together a monster season. He shot .535 from the floor landing him 14th in the league in field goal percentage, and shot .557 on two pointers largely from jump shots between 16 and 20 feet, qualifying him in no uncertain terms as an elite jump shooter. The Heat also trot out savvy veterans, Chris Anderson, Shane Battier, and arguably the greatest shooter of all time in Ray Allen. All of this adds up to the Miami Heat possessing the best offense in the league. And not by a little bit. They averaged 102.9 points per game, good for 6th in the NBA, but were the second best three point shooting team in the league, and shot .496 overall from the field, demolishing # 2 San Antonio at .481. They beat teams by an average of 7.9 points per game in the regular season and in the playoffs that number is an astounding 13.9. One could make the argument that they have played weak competition in Milwaukee and an undermanned Chicago Bulls team, but an average 14 point margin of victory in the playoffs is what it is. The Heat have only lost three games in their last 48 outings. If all of that doesn't terrify you as a Pacer fan, you're just not paying attention. So how do Pacers compete?

KEYS TO VICTORY

In many ways this will be a series of contrasting styles. The Heat are number one in offense and the Pacers are the best defensive team in the league. Miami was top ten in forcing turnovers during the regular season, while Indiana was in the top ten in turning the ball over. The Pacers were the number one rebounding team, while Miami ranked dead last. The numbers bear out what our eyes tell us. Miami plays small ball, spreading the court with multiple shooters and possess elite wing players that pressure the ball, get turnovers and easy baskets. While the Pacers play smash-mouth basketball, going big with rebounders and play sound, non-gambling defense. These contrasts give insight into Indiana's keys to victory.

For the Pacers keys to victory, I'm going to refer to the matchup between the two teams this season, as well as the six-game playoff matchup last year. The teams are still largely the same personnel-wise. Yes, Miami added Ray Allen, “Birdman” Chris Anderson, and were without Bosh much of last years series, so they are better. The Pacers have an almost entirely new bench, but it still is not much of a factor. They are without Danny Granger, and his length, leadership, moxie, and shooting will be sorely missed. But the Pacers starters 1 through 5 are improved over last year, so let's call it a wash. (Danny, don't take that statement too hard. I hope you come back next year 100% healthy. Yet despite being the face of the franchise for five years, Most Improved Player, NBA AllStar, you and your 14 million dollar contract need to come off the bench next season. I hope that you understand that its best for the team, and if you can check your ego, re-sign for a reasonable contract, and play this utterly indispensable role, you'll be rewarded by being a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate and a key player on a team that will vie for a Championship over the next three to five years. Thank you in advance.) 

PLAYING BIG

In the six playoff games last season and the three regular season, rebounding and points in the paint were significant indicators of each outcome. The Pacers out-rebounded Miami by 54 in their four wins, whereas Miami pulled down an extra 14 in their five victories. Indiana did win the battle of the boards in two losses, but those games were marred by turnovers, coughing up 26 and 27 points off turnovers in those games. Turnovers have been a problem all year for the Pacers, but were not particularly so against the Heat—giving up 15.6 to Miami, while surrendering an average of 14.5 to the rest of the league. A key to this series will be keeping those turnovers in check, but more importantly not allowing those inevitable miscues to become easy points for Miami. Beyond that, points in the paint appear to be the most closely related to outcome. In all 9 games, the team who scored more points in the paint came out with the win. It will be extremely important to establish Hibbert and West down low to put pressure on the Heats small lineups, and equally important for George and Stephenson to attack the basket.

DEFENSE

While Indiana's size is an advantage in rebounding, interior defense, and on the offensive end against Miami, the Heat's small ball attack will cause Indiana headaches. When Haslem and Bosh are on the floor Hibbert can stay close to basket and bring help defense on slashing wings, but Miami likes to go small with Bosh at center and Shane Battier at the power forward position. That means West will have to defend a three point shooter, which he did fairly successfully when he was matched up against Iman Shumpert in the New York series. But more troubling is that Hibbert will have to guard Bosh, who makes his living on long jumpers and even has three point range. Hibbert isn't adept at chasing players out on the perimeter, which will allow an efficient jump shooter such as Bosh a lot of room to operate, and more importantly will draw Roy out of the paint providing open lanes to LeBron and Wade. It will be interesting to see if Vogel has a defensive scheme to deal with this matchup nightmare. If not, it could be a short series.

Keeping LeBron and Wade out of the paint is extremely important. To that end, the Pacers defense was better than it was last season. In fact, the Heat only scored 30.7 paint points a game against Indiana, their lowest total against any team. Hibbert was superb in the New York series, but he can't do it alone. Stephenson will have to neutralize, if not out play Dwyane Wade. No one in the league can out play LeBron James, but George has shown this season that he can slow him a bit, holding James to 21 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, and 51%, all below his season averages of 27, 8, 7 and 57%. Like Carmelo and Josh Smith in the previous rounds George will once again have to contend against a stronger player in the post. LeBron likes to post-up on the left block, a place from where he is devastatingly effective. Keeping him out of that area will be easier said than done. 

STAYING OUT OF FOUL TROUBLE

George will have to come up with a monster defensive effort and do it without fouling. I believe that fouls will be the most significant factor in the series. If (and when) the Pacers starters get into significant foul trouble, the already difficult task of beating the Heat becomes nearly impossible. While Ian Mahimni and DJ Augustine have played well in stretches, Sam Young deserves credit for his play in game 6 against the Knicks, and Tyler Hansbrough seems to love nothing more than to mix it up against Miami, this series will be decided by the starters. If the starters can't stay on the floor, Pacer Nation will be figuring out how to strengthen the bench for next year sooner rather than later.

BALL MOVEMENT AND SHOOTING

Another way Miami will deal with Indiana's size is by fronting the post. The Pacers have all year long struggled with feeding their big men in the post, particularly against fronting. Battier is one of the best in the business at denying entry passes and the boys in blue and gold will have to be patient and creative in finding ways to get West, Hibbert, and Hansbrough the ball. If Indiana gets frustrated and starts jacking ill-advised three pointers, they may find themselves in large deficits early and often.

The wing players for Indiana must be selective and effective in making Miami pay for doubling the post. If Hill in particular can consistently hit the open three or find the open man in the offensive rotation, the chess match of big vs. small will tilt in the Pacers favor.

One of Indiana's great advantages in this series is that there is not one or two players the Miami Heat's defense can key on. The Pacers score and win by committee. On any given night, any one of the starters can be the leading scorer. That sort of offensive unpredictability will serve Indiana well and keep Miami on its heels. That is true most of all because of the emergence of Lance Stephenson. Last year an after thought, and early in the season a non-threat offensively, Lance, when aggressive, can create havoc with his speed in transition and his strength driving the ball to the basket. He's the X-factor in this series, because I'm not sure what he's capable of. I'm not sure even he knows. But if he can play smart and under control as he did in game 6 against New York, Miami won't know what hit them. 

PREDICTIONS

Having said all that, Miami is not going to look past the Pacers as they did last year. They know we are coming. I believe that last year's playoff series was a wake up call for Miami. LeBron's playoff stats before the Heat went down 2-1 against Indiana looked like this: 27.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, on 47% shooting. After Indiana got his attention, his numbers from game four in that series through the Finals went up dramatically to 31.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 51% shooting. We poked the bear and he responded with authority. In no small part, that same series against Indiana inspired Miami's small ball attack. In the first three games they were getting out-muscled and out-bigged (and their most effective big man Chris Bosh was out with injury,) and so Heat coach Eric Spoelstra changed his offense to emphasize his rosters strengths: speed, length, shooting, and one of the most gifted players the league has ever seen. They went small and gave the keys over to LeBron, sparking an offensive juggernaut, and the league hasn't been the same since.  Even so, the Pacers won the first two regular season match ups against the Heat. After losing to Indiana on February 1, 89-102, the Miami Heat ripped off 27 wins in a row, the second longest winning streak in NBA history. Miami not only knows we're coming, Indiana is at least partial motivation for the Heat being the dominant team they are today.

Make no mistake, the Pacers are monumental underdogs and no one in the media will pick them to win, no one in Vegas, either. To do so would be foolish. While Indiana's defense can potentially neutralize Miami's potent offense, Indiana's shaky offense is in very real danger of collapsing against the Heat's lightening-quick pressure defense. Miami is not only a good team, they are an historically great team. They have won 45 of their last 48 games. That's why, in my original playoff picks I chose Miami in 5. The Pacers aren't on Miami's level. They are too young, too inexperienced, and they are missing the depth and consistent outside shooting to contend.

But, too, there is this: David West said this about the Indiana Pacers, “This is the most together group I’ve been a part of. I made the observation, at some point every day every guy speaks to every guy on this team, and I’ve been on teams where that’s not the case. Everybody has a conversation at some point throughout the day, and that’s huge for us, especially in tough situations. ... We don’t talk about it, we practice it. We don’t have any egos. We don’t have any ‘I’ guys. We have a bunch of ‘we’ guys.”

This is a special group of guys. It is a confident bunch. They wanted all year to get here, to see the Miami Heat in the playoffs again, to test themselves against the best. Vogel wrote on the whiteboard in the locker room “Believe.” He has these guys believing. And maybe, just maybe that special game 6 against New York will be for this young group of Pacers what that game back in 1994 was to Reggie's Pacers. After multiple years of losing in the first round of the playoffs, Indiana was once again a heavy underdog going into Orlando. The expectations were low, they didn't have a superstar, just a collection of guys that played tough and together. They battled, kept it close, and then it happened—Byron Scott hit a jumper with 2.2 seconds to go, putting the Pacers up 89-88 for an unexpected victory. That win made the team believe they could play with anyone. That shot propelled Indiana all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks, where Reggie would drop 25 in the 4th quarter in the Garden. That moment entered the Pacers into an era in which they were perennial contenders for a decade. Maybe, years from now, we'll remember this year's game 6 like we remember Byron Scott's shot. A moment in which this collection of Pacers began to understand that the sky's the limit. Because basketball still has the ability to surprise. Pacers in 7.

I believe.