By: Martin Sumners
The first round of the NBA Playoffs has come to a close for the Eastern Conference, and the teams vying to make it into the conference finals are ready for battle. Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference semifinal matchups to give you insight into who we think will come out on top.
(2) Miami Heat vs. (3) Indiana Pacers
It seems that not many basketball fans outside of the Hoosier state are really that excited about a Heat-Pacers matchup. One reason is that not many can see the Pacers threatening the Heat. The other is that the Heat’s glitz and the Pacers’ grit doesn’t even match the drama of rock-paper-scissors.
Interestingly though, these two franchises’ directions dramatically changed soon after the only time they met in the playoffs. That was way back in 2004 and the Pacers won the battle, but the Heat won the war. The Heat were emerging with rookie sensation Dwyane Wade while the Pacers, led by Reggie Miller, had the best record in the league and was a leading title contender. The Pacers won the series in six games but then were upset in the conference finals by the Detroit Pistons.
That offseason, the Heat traded for Shaquille O’Neal and won a title soon thereafter and then acquired LeBron James. Meanwhile, the Pacers stewed about the upset and the first game that next season against the Pistons, Ron Artest (Metta World Peace) sparked what would be known as the Malice in the Palace. The Pacers were systematically broken up, but are still feeling the effects of those events as the team has been rebuilt with good players, but perhaps purposely do not possess any super talented player who comes with risks.
Despite playing that transformative series eight years ago, there exists no dramatic personal or team rivalry. That leaves focusing on how the heavy underdog Pacers can perhaps make it a series on their basketball merits. In the regular season, the Heat handled the Pacers 3-1 with two blowouts and an overtime win. The lone loss (105-90) was in Indy during a rough 5-6 patch on a back-to-back night following a demoralizing loss on the road to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Therein lies the key to beating the Heat – hope they hit a stumbling block and begin to reel in self-doubt. Never has a team been so apt to get in a funk and be unable to get out of its own way within games, as well as in a series. It’s happened a few times the past two seasons and most notably in last year’s loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals.
However, ultimately the Pacers must be able to take advantage of these potential lapses, much like the Mavs. The Pacers will want to have wingmen Paul George and Danny Granger, who have not played well against the Heat in the past, make James and Wade play defense to slow down their offensive production. If James and Wade are allowed to rest on defense, or roam the perimeter without impunity – their offense will flow that much easier by getting out on the break and having conserved their energy.
The Heat also seem to have trouble with quick penetrating point guards who can score and dish out assists. Well, so do a lot of teams but the Heat is even more susceptible with no true point guard of their own and no shot blockers to thwart penetration. A large percentage of their regular season losses were to teams that have that advantage, including twice to the Boston Celtics (Rajon Rondo) and the Milwaukee Bucks (Brandon Jennings) and single game losses to the Los Angeles Clippers (Chris Paul) and the Golden State Warriors (Monta Ellis/Nate Robinson).
There are two issues that mitigate this potentiality for the Pacers. One, in a playoff setting the Heat has no qualms using James to check such players. This played out in last year’s conference finals win over the Chicago Bulls and Derrick Rose. The other is that the Pacers don’t have a point guard as mentioned above. The starting point guard George Hill is not a ball handling playmaker, but more of an undersized two guard. Also, the former starter and current back-up Darren Collison is simply not dynamic enough.
The Pacers, outmanned on the perimeter, will have to rely on their interior players as there they might actually have an advantage with their lone all-star this season in 7’2″ center Roy Hibbert over Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem. Hibbert is going to have to dominate Heat centers Haslem and Anthony by putting up more points than his season averages of 12.8 ppg. But in the first-round series victory over the Orlando Magic without Dwight Howard, Hibbert’s point production actually declined to 11 ppg. Against the Heat during the regular season he averaged slightly less barley over 10 ppg.
The only advantage the Pacers posses is a better bench with Collison, Tyler Hansbrough and Leandro Barbosa over the Heat’s aged main reserves in Shane Battier, Mike Miller and Juwan Howard. Heat in 4.
(4) Boston Celtics vs. (8) Philadelphia 76ers
These two franchises have met a league record 18 times in the playoffs with the Celtics holding the edge 11-7. The last three of four series have gone to the maximum length, including the classic 1981 and 1982 Eastern Conference Finals. In 1981, the Celtics stormed back from a 3-1 deficit to win in seven. The next year, the Celtics fell behind again 3-1 only to force another Game 7 where the 76ers prevailed.
The last time these two teams met in the postseason, the Celtics won 3-2 in the first-round of the 2002 playoffs. The sole survivor from that series, still on their respective team, is Paul Pierce.
But the one person who may bear more scars from the Celtic-76ers wars, who still will have a say about how this series will turn out, is 76ers head coach Doug Collins. The former overall No. 1 selection by the 76ers in 1973 who after vanquishing the Chicago Bulls in the first-round professed, “I’m a Sixer for life,” finished his injury-shortened playing career on the sidelines as the hated rival Celtics in the ’81 Eastern Conference Finals defeated his team in a heartbreaking 90-91 fashion at the old Boston Garden.
Also, this season, Collins saw the Celtics snatch a division title from him as the 76ers jumped out to a fast start, leading the Atlantic Division but the green goblins stormed back to overtake them. Yet, the bright side is that although the Celtics demolished the 76ers 103-79 during their late season charge, the 76ers handled the Celtics rather easily in their first two matchups – 103-71 and 99-86.
The sense is that the 76ers were fortunate to have Derrick Rose go down with his knee injury in Game 1 and that they would not have beaten the Chicago Bulls with the former MVP. That is likely true, but heading into the series many seemingly sold short the 76ers’ chance and most, if not all, analysts after the injury still dismissively predicted a series win for the Bulls.
Similarly, the 76ers may matchup better with the Celtics than many think. The most significant advantage that the 76ers had in the season series was rebounding. The younger 76ers pounded the veteran bodies of the Celtics on the glass in the two victories (54-45) and (46-35) with a total edge in the three games on the offensive boards 40-11.
The engine that runs the Celtics is Rajon Rondo as he turns in triple-double performances or huge assists numbers making the Celtics almost impossible to beat. In their regular season games, the Sixers held Rando to 5, 6 and 7 points respectively. However, he was able to dish out 15 assists in a loss, but with 17 assists in the last game he dominated the action that led to the win.
The 76ers will rely on their defense to win games as evidenced by how they played all season and in the series win over the Bulls. The 76ers with rangy players like Andre Iguodala, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young up high can switch rather easily as teams try pick and roll, or use other schemes to get mismatches. That’s how shooting under 40% in most of their wins over the Bulls is possible. The Celtics will need to beat them from the perimeter and that will be challenging for the Celtics with Ray Allen fighting through a triple death combination of injury, age and rust as well as his replacement Avery Bradley not living up to his regular season success. However, Kevin Garnett seems to be revitalized as he closed out the Hawks with a 28 point, 14 rebound performance.
The 76ers hope that Elton Brand could go through a similar time warp but anything he could provide beyond pedestrian production would be a godsend. However, the presence of center Spencer Hawes has been a pleasant surprise as he has averaged almost 13 ppg and 9 rpg in the Bull series. Also, point guard Jrue Hoilday who may have been the 76ers MVP in the Bulls series put up 18.2 ppg, 4.7 apg and 5.2 rpg but seems to not garner his share of accolades.
The series may come down to who can hit the big shot for their respective teams. The 76ers tend to rely on sixth man sensation Lou Williams and the Celtics go-to man is usually Paul Pierce. History reveals that Pierce has the edge, but a bit of advice for the 76ers would be to force him off the left elbow where he almost always seems to operate from in those situations. Celtics in 6