(Editor’s note: We asked our NBA expert, Bill Reiter, 10 questions about the East finals series between the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, which starts Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET. Here are his answers.)
1) The Heat are heavy favorites but Dwyane Wade is clearly limited by his knee injury. If he’s ineffective, how much does that change the complexion of the series?
The Heat have shown few serious weaknesses the past few months as they’ve won a stunning 45 of their last 48 games, but Wade’s knee could prove to be one with serious consequences. A sidelined or ineffective Wade would take away the team’s second-best player, a born winner and a guy who forces teams to account for him at all times despite the fact LeBron is pretty darn good, too. Neutralize Wade’s level of play — or the threat of it — for an entire series and you remove one of the many hurdles facing any team looking to upset Miami in a seven-game series.
2) Paul George became a first-time All-Star this season and was voted the league’s most improved player. Will he need to hold his own with LeBron James for the Pacers to have a chance? Or is that asking too much?
For the Pacers to win, George will have to be all of that and more. He’s already upped his offensive output, notching almost two more points, one more rebound and an extra assist per game in the playoffs than the regular season. He’s also averaged 10 more points per game in the postseason than he did last year.
Still, George has to be even better for his team to have a chance. He’s shooting just over 40 percent from the field in these playoffs, and he’ll have a much tougher time of it against the Heat’s defense than he did against that of the Knicks or Hawks. He’ll also have to play the kind of top-level defense he’s capable of — including, at times, against LeBron — for the Pacers to stay competitive.
3) Statistically, the Pacers have only one clear advantage over the Heat. Indiana was the best rebounding team in the league; Miami was near the bottom. Do you think the Pacers will dominate the glass in the series and how much will that matter?
They better. The Heat’s lack of rebounding has been a statistical anomaly in what otherwise has been a season of almost total dominance (at least since Miami started trying around the All-Star break). The Pacers, along with their top-ranked defense from the regular season, rebound so well because they are a gritty, tough, team-oriented group. That’s all great, especially in the postseason, but we’ve hit a stage of the playoffs where talent almost always wins out over everything else. The Heat have talent in spades, so the Pacers better capitalize on every one of the few advantages they have — starting with rebounding.
4) Chris Bosh missed most of the Pacers series last year after suffering an abdominal strain in Game 1 and the Heat struggled without him. How important will he be this time around?
It’s easy to forget, but Bosh is an All-Star and a member of the Big Three. His presence is always huge even if it’s overshadowed by that of LeBron and Wade. But against a physical, defensive-minded team, everything Bosh can do — the elbow jumpers, the potential to rebound, the ability to spell his co-stars and take the lead for key stretches — will play a significant role. It’ll be especially crucial for Bosh to draw Pacers center Roy Hibbert away from the basket by making midrange jumpers. Hibbert’s rim protection thwarted the Knicks in the semifinals, but he can’t ignore Bosh like he did Tyson Chandler.
5) Bench play could be big in this series. The Heat can bring in Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Norris Cole and Chris Andersen, while the Pacers have Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin and Sam Young. Will depth be a problem for Indiana?
Depth is an issue for Indiana, but not as much as it would be in the regular season. There are no back-to-backs or four-games-in-five-day grinds. There are two days between every game, and this is a time of the season made for stars. All of which means depth takes on a much less pressing role (just ask the Denver Nuggets) compared to star power and the ability of your go-to guys to get it done in crunch time. That’s the good news for the Pacers on their bench. The bad news? The Heat are superior in the non-depth area, too, starting with LeBron and increasing exponentially if Wade is healthy and Bosh plays well. Throw in the fact Miami also has that stacked bench and you start to see why Vegas has the Heat as 2/15 favorites.
6) Indiana ranked first in defensive efficiency this season, while Miami had the No. 1 or 2 offense depending on the metrics. How do you think the ruthlessly effiicent Heat offense will attack the league’s stingiest defense?
Three words: LeBron, LeBron, LeBron. The Chosen One is finally living up to his name, and LeBron has grown into a player who at any moment of real jeopardy for Miami can take over a game. That fact that LeBron is a pass-first superstar, and that Miami is loaded with sharpshooters happy to take the open looks LeBron’s uber-talent tends to produce, and you figure the Pacers better be prepared to score more points than usual.
7) Does Erik Spoelstra or Frank Vogel have a clear coaching edge over the other?
No. These are both great coaches who have crafted the culture they want within their respective locker rooms. Both men place a strong emphasis on defense and team solidarity, and both have been able to show their worth in the shadow of all-time greats (Pat Riley for Spoelstra and Larry Bird for Vogel).
8) Without Danny Granger, the Pacers ranked in the bottom half of the league in most offensive categories this season. Do they have the firepower necessary to beat the Heat four times?
That’s one of the key questions of the series. The final analysis always comes down to this: Even if the Pacers’ stout defense holds up against LeBron and the Heat’s offensive dynamism, they still lack the weapons to best Miami four times in seven games. Unless . . . unless someone steps up as an unlikely offensive hero and takes the Pacers’ offense to another level. Roy Hibbert has been phenomenal these playoffs, Paul George will need to do his part offensively, and George Hill is key to the Pacers’ scoring — but they still need Lance Stephenson to show up and do consistently what was expected from him as a high school prodigy in Brooklyn years ago and not seen until his breakout Game 6 against the Knicks.
9) LeBron hasn’t been great so far in the postseason — his stats are all down from his regular-season numbers. But he hasn’t had to be great. Will he need to be in this series?
That depends on George, Hibbert and Stephenson — and Wade’s knee. If the Pacers’ players, or Wade’s health, force the issue then LeBron will have to respond. The regular season suggests, if called to it, he’ll meet the challenge and then some.
10) How big of an upset would it be if Indiana wins this series? How surprised would you be?
All season, the Pacers have looked like the Eastern Conference team most capable of besting Miami in a seven-game series. They have the best defense in the league. They’re the best rebounders. They tasted the sting of playoff defeat and letting an opponent off the hook last season against Miami. They have a young, blossoming star in George. They’re well-coached. They know who they are and what they’re about. And yet . . . it would still be a shock. The Heat are a dynasty on the rise, with a player in LeBron who seems at the peak of his powers. To best them in this series would be astounding.