7:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Miami -8
A rematch of the past two Eastern Conference Finals takes place tonight on South Beach, as the Miami Heat host the Indiana Pacers at AmericanAirlines Arena. Developing into one of the more bitter rivalries in basketball today over the last few seasons, there is decidedly less fanfare surrounding this particular matchup, due to a variety of reasons (LeBron taking his leave to return home to Cleveland may have something to do with it, folks.). But while the Heat lost arguably the greatest player on the planet in the Offseason, the Pacers (2-6) were struck down even harder, thanks to the season-ending injury to Paul George coupled with the exit of Lance Stephenson in Free Agency. In the case of George, Frank Vogel and Co. must have cringed when the two-time All-Star came down awkwardly on a seemingly routine lay-up, sustaining a gruesome broken leg during an exhibition for the United States’ FIBA World Cup team. One of the true rising stars in the league, Geroge was coming off a campaign in which he had averaged 21.7 points on 42.4% shooting from the field, including 36.4% from three, along with 6.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.9 steals, with a career-high PER of 20.1. Making things all the more harrowing for the franchise was the fact that the Small Forward was resigned to a maximum five-year $91.57 million extension last year, which ultimately meant that they would have to part ways with Stephenson, the erstwhile Shooting Guard who signed a three-year $27.4 million contract with the Charlotte Hornets over the Summer, capitalizing on a career campaign in which he set personal bests in minutes played (35.3), field goal attempts (11.2), field goal percentage (49.1%), three-point field goal percentage (35.2%), rebounds (7.2), assists (4.6), and scoring (13.8). However, Stephenson wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with in the lokcerroom, and many around the league point towards his presence being a major reason as to why Indiana struggled as much as they did during the Playoffs. But with all that said, the fact remains that this team is now without both of their starters on their wing, and were unable to adequately supplement their collective loss in the Offseason.
After a 103-91 victory over the dreadful 76ers in the Opener, the Pacers proceeded to drop each of the next six contests, before finally getting back into the win column Monday Night against the Jazz. In the 97-86 win, the hosts pulled away in the Fourth Quarter, outscoring the visitors 25-17 in the final stanza. It was an ugly, defensive game, which is where this team thrives; both teams shot a hair over 43.0% from the field, but it was Indiana who owned a decisive rebounding advantage (44-37), particularly on the offensive glass (13-5), which led to a wealth of second-chance points. The much-maligned Roy Hibbert was dominant in the middle, scoring 29 points on 11-of-21 shooting from the field (52.4%), along with five rebounds (three offensive), one assist, one block, and one steal. However, the biggest surprise in the game was the performance of Vogel’s Bench, which was a clear weakness of the team last season. Despite only playing four bodies off the Bench, two of them, Lavoy Allen and the newly-signed A.J. Price, accounted for 34 points, with Allen owning the boards with fifteen rebounds, (nine offensive), and Price scoring nine of his 22 points from beyond the arc (3-of-4). Don’t be surprised if you see these two make their way into the Starting Lineup, particularly given the recent injury status of George Hill (bruised knee) and David West (sprained foot), who are both likely to be out of commission for at least the next two weeks. In the face of all the injuries, at the very least Vogel can take solace in that his team is still bullish on the defensive end of the court; through eight contests, the Pacers have allowed 94.6 points (4th overall) on 43.8% shooting (10th overall), including 47.4% from within the arc (9th overall) and 32.5% from beyond it (8th overall), along with 46.0 rebounds (3rd overall), and 6.4 blocks (2nd overall). Furthermore, they remain among the league’s best in effective field goal percentage allowed (47.7%) and defensive rebounding percentage (78.8%), ranking eighth and third in those respective categories. This of course brings us back to Hibbert, who now has a golden opportunity to prove his value without the other four starters from last year’s 56-26 team. After putting together one of the most curious disappearing acts in Playoff History, in which the seventh-year veteran averaged just 9.3 points on 44.9% shooting, including a poor 45.2% within the three-point arc, along with 5.5 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks, while posting a pitiful 12.1 PER. Keep in mind that just three months prior, he was selected as the Starting Center for the Eastern Conference All-Star Team, folks. So without his brothers in arms, the Pacers have had to play through the seven-footer, and he has responded in kind; Hibbert has a career-high 14.6 points on 49.4% shooting from the field, including 50.0% from within the arc, 7.9 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks, the highest figure of his career.
Meanwhile, Life After LeBron continues on South Beach, as the Heat (5-2) are doing their best to remind everyone that they were not a one-man team. That notion has clearly been debunked thanks to the play of Chris Bosh, who after being heavily courted by the Houston Rockets, resigned with Miami on a maximum five-year $118.7 million deal, effectively making him the new foundation of the franchise for years to come. The twelfth-year veteran has responded as expected, averaging 23.6 points on 48.6% shooting from the field, including 52.3% from within the arc, along with 10.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 1.1 steals. The difference for the nine-time All-Star Forward has basically been location; upon teaming up with LeBron, Bosh had to adjust his game towards the perimeter, where he became an effective mid-range shooter, but now with the four-time MVP gone he has been able to get back into the painted area, where he has reminded us all that he is much more than simply a third-wheel on a Championship Team. He’s also been far more aggressive without the looming specter of James on the court; Bosh has attempted 15.9 field goals, 12.3 two-point field goals, 3.6 three-point field goals, and 8.4 free-throws, all high-water marks in the five years he has been with the Heat. Furthermore, his 26.8 PER to this point is far and above his previous personal best over the last four years (20.0), and serves as the highest such figure of his career. However, the lingering question remains; even with this resurgence from Bosh, does this team truly have the firepower to contend for another NBA Championship, let alone in the improving Eastern Conference?
During the Offseason, Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra were very busy retooling a roster that was set to undergo some major changes, even with LeBron’s sudden departure. After securing Bosh for the next five years, Riley moved quickly to sign Leuol Deng from Cleveland on a very affordable two-year $19.8 million deal, injecting the starting lineup with a versatile two-way player, who is among the league’s best perimeter defenders. In addition to the two-time All-Star, Miami acquired Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger to further fill out the rotation, giving this team a decidedly more veteran feel. Through seven games, Deng has fit right in with Spoelstra’s small-ball style of offense, averaging 15.6 points on 55.7% shooting from the field, including 38.1% from three, along with 3.4 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.3 blocks. And as a whole, this team hasn’t lost much of a step at all offensively without the presence of James, averaging 102.1 points (12th overall) on 48.1% shooting from the field (3rd overall), including 52.8% from within the arc (4th overall) and 37.0% from beyond it (9th overall), along with 23.9 assists (4th overall), while getting to the free-throw line 26.4 times (10th overall) and netting 74.1% of their attempts (23rd overall). Furthermore, their effective field goal percentage is still lofty (53.6%) while their free-throw/field goal percentage (25.4%) is among the league’s top-ten. After enduring back-to-back losses following a 3-0 start, Spoelstra’s charges have won each of their last two outings, including an impressive 105-96 victory at Dallas this past Sunday Night. Miami very nearly blew an 83-67 lead heading into the Fourth Quarter, where the hosts put together one final push that ultimately proved futile. The visitors had their way with the Mavericks on both ends of the court, shooting a blazing 55.2% from the field, including 9-of-23 from downtown (39.1%), while dishing out a staggering 31 assists in the process, all the while limiting their opponent just 42.2% shooting from the field, including 9-of-29 from three (31.0%). The triumvirate (or dare we say new Big Three?) of Bosh, Deng, and Dwyane Wade accounted for 70 points on 29-of-47 shooting from the field (61.7%), seventeen rebounds, nineteen assists, and three steals i the victory. Mario Chalmers also added eighteen points off the Bench, with four assists, and a pair of steals, while draining three of his five attempts from distance (6.0.0%). Balance has served this team well this season, for five different players have averaged in double-figures scoring, with seven serving up at least two assists.