NBA takeaways: It was the best of times … and then we have the Pacers
Anyone still have the Pacers beating the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals? Didn’t think so. These two teams couldn’t be further apart at this point. Titles aren’t won in January, and Miami has proven it knows how to run the marathon. While the Heat have finished their sweep of the Bobcats on Monday night, the Pacers continue to embarrass themselves.
Indiana made itself into even more of a postseason punchline with its latest loss to the No. 8 Hawks, whom by the way had a losing record in the regular season. Now down 3-2 in the series, the Pacers could complete their mystery collapse in their next game. But it wasn’t quite a perfect night for the Heat; Miami probably would have liked to see another No. 8 seed upset later on Monday night, but instead the Spurs held on against the Mavericks to draw even in their first-round series.
SPURS 93, MAVERICKS 89
Series tied 2-2
Takeaway: Monday night’s scenario would have looked quite optimal to the Mavs upon entering the playoffs: Make a layup, and you’re headed to OT with a chance to go up 3-1 against the No. 1 Spurs. Of course, that’s not how things generally go against San Antonio. Monta Ellis missed a contested layup with seconds to go and San Antonio drew even in the first round. In the series of All-Star veterans, it was Boris Diaw’s 3-pointer with little more than 30 seconds to play that was the difference. There’s something about wearing that Spurs uniform that evokes big plays in anxious moments — maybe because robots don’t feel stress. In addition to clutch plays, the Spurs also played much improved defense in Game 4, holding Dallas to 38.1-percent shooting. If San Antonio didn’t turn the ball over 14 times and give up 16 offensive rebounds, the game wouldn’t have been so close. San Antonio still isn’t playing its best basketball, but at least Gregg Popovich may be starting to figure something out defensively.
Star review: The Mavericks opted to let Ellis attack the rim with the game on the line instead of giving it to Dirk Nowitzki. The play-call appeared to be the right one, as Ellis was getting to the rim late in the game. But he missed the layup when he had to go high off the glass. Nowitzki’s patented jump-shot dagger was also an option, and you wonder how many more he’ll have left to take in his career.
Looking ahead: Here’s an advanced stat for you: Returning to San Antonio tied at 2-2 is much different than a Mavericks’ 3-1 advantage. The Spurs have an exquisite manner of snubbing their nose at desperation, and now they have a chance to take control of the series at home. The Mavericks didn’t get much production from their frontcourt — the "highlight" DeJuan Blair’s late-game ejection — and they’ll need more from their interior to upset the Spurs again on the road. Another note to watch for San Antonio: Tony Parker may be nursing a right ankle injury, which would be a complete game-changer for Wednesday’s Game 5.
HAWKS 107, PACERS 97
Hawks lead series 3-2
Takeaway: There’s a longing deep within each of us to understand life’s great questions. Well, if not in this life, perhaps in the next we will learn what happened to Indiana’s season. The Pacers’ knees are buckling at this point, and either they’re taking a dive or they’re just ready to crumble to the mat. Now down 3-2 in the series, Indy continues to play without heart: Slow to rotate or close out defensively, playing without urgency or understanding of how to break the Hawks’ defense. If it’s purely a chemistry issue, it must be a huge one to cause a tumble like this. But the reality is that Indy’s perimeter offense isn’t good enough to complement its defense, and the Hawks have created a horrendous matchup issue that spreads the Pacers’ usual interior advantage. There’s not much the Pacers can do at this point without making major changes. It’s probably too late for that.
Star review: Just so we’re clear: Paul George, despite his 26 points and 12 rebounds, is not in the same class as LeBron or Durant. Still, this isn’t his fault. He’s an excellent two-way player and he’s still been finding ways to score efficiently this series. Roy Hibbert is the piece that’s been completely absent. In Game 5, his regressed game was back on full display: 0 points, 0 rebounds in 12 minutes. Ouch.
Looking ahead: The Hawks deserve some credit here, even though it’s way more fun to kick the Pacers while they are down. Atlanta will get its credit when it closes this series by continuing to pull apart the Pacers’ defense with 3-pointers and transition offense. The Pacers showed signs of mental life by making an effort to climb back into Game 5, but right now Atlanta has complete control.
HEAT 109, BOBCATS 98
Heat win series 4-0
Takeaway: It only took four playoff games for the Heat to become the clear favorites to win another NBA championship. Vegas already knew Miami had the best shot at the title, but with the ugliness in Indiana and the raucous West, the Heat come out of the first round looking the most pristine team playing. James has been nuzzled into that legacy as one of the game’s all-time greats, and he’s playing with a certain preordained confidence. His game was powerful and constant all series, as he averaged 30 points on 55.7-percent shooting, with eight rebounds and six assists. This series wasn’t as lopsided as a sweep indicates, but the Bobcats simply didn’t have enough talent, especially in Game 4 when Al Jefferson sat with injury.
Star review: The leisure of a part-time regular season is looking good on Dwyane Wade. Wade averaged 17.5 points on 50-percent shooting in 33 minutes per game in the series. Chris Bosh was nearly as impressive, shooting 51.2 percent for a 14.5-point average. When the Big Three is going, Miami is too tough to beat.
Looking ahead: Heat vs. winner of Raptors-Nets (series tied 2-2). The two-time defending NBA champions now have plenty of time to rest before the second round. But before we put the Bobcats to bed, let’s recognize how they’ve climbed the steep slope to relevancy. The Bobcats won just seven games two seasons ago (the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign) and 21 games last season. This season, they were a playoff team and were competitive at times, even in the sweep. They should be back in the playoffs — but as Hornets — next season.