The Miami Heat (48-21) are right behind the Indiana Pacers (51-20) in the East standings. With just a few weeks of the regular season left, the Heat and Pacers meet on Wednesday night and then two and half weeks later before the playoff run. Last time they met, it seemed inevitable they would match-up in the East, but with both teams struggling as of late, it isn't a foregone conclusion.
Here's a couple questions to get us ready for the Heat-Pacers matchup.
1. What's the biggest difference between the Heat and Pacers now and the last time they played (December 10)?
The biggest difference is the roster, and I mean that in a few different ways. Most notably, the moves the Indiana Pacers made at the trade deadline. They dealt away franchise player Danny Granger for Evan Turner, and they also picked up Andrew Bynum. Granger didn't play either time against the Heat this season, and Bynum most likely is out for the next match-up as well. But Turner changes the equation. Also, Miami had't fully understood what they had with Michael Beasley yet. He didn't play in the first two meetings because of injury, and he isn't consistent now, but he is an addition. Oh, and Greg Oden is starting for the Heat - seems like a bit of a difference.
2. Both these teams are struggling as of late, is it still certain this is the Eastern Conference Finals preview?
Yes. Although I am less confident in that answer than I was earlier this season. The emergence of the Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls with the addition to the slump these teams are in make it in question. Is it likely? Yes. The Nets have been dominated by the Pacers all this year, but most of it was early. The Bulls just grind both these teams and make life hard, and they have been playing well. Miami can cast their play off with them flipping a switch, but the Pacers' struggles come on offense, and that does alert me. If they struggle to score in the playoffs, it could get hard. I still think both these teams are good enough in a 7 game series to meet each other.
3. What's the significance of this game?
None, really. I mean both teams want to win, but this game isn't the final game, it won't be the final adjustment or measuring stick for either of these teams. If anything, it only helps one team or the other get closer to the number one seed in the East, which lately doesn't seem either is very good at locking up. The Pacers obviously want it, but Miami doesn't need to overwork themselves for one potential Game 7. This game will give us just another look at how much these two despise each other.
"It's a big game. We're not going to shy away from it. It's going to be a good test for us." - LeBron James
4. Can Greg Oden really make a difference on Roy Hibbert?
Yes, and no. Hibbert is 7'2 and shots at the top of his reach. Nobody is blocking Hibbert. But that's not what it is about. There are two foundational pieces to guarding Hibbert that Oden can help in. The first is bothering him. Sometimes all a big man needs to know is that somebody his own size is there and can contest, and until Roy is unstoppable (which he isn't close at 11.1 PPG and 7.1 RPG), then he can be slowed down. Hibbert just gets extra excitement with the Heat because they haven't had any size against him. Chris Andersen is still small compared to Hibbert and Bosh is to thin. Oden doesn't match Hibbert's size but he gets close.
The second is the primary concept of keeping Hibbert from getting to his spot. If Oden can use his body to keep Roy from establishing his presence in the lane on his own, he already slows down Indiana's advantage. Oden can help, but he isn't the primary answer. The primary answer will be LeBron James and Dwyane Wade getting Hibbert in foul trouble. Although, we are all eager to see how Oden can defend Hibbert.
5. Has Indiana surpassed Miami this year as the team to beat?
The simple answer to this is no. You don't surpass a team that has knocked you out of the playoffs the previous two years by winning a game or two more in the regular season. Indiana has improved, drastically. The addition of Luis Scola and C.J. Watson will be great upgrades in the playoffs for Indiana. I'm still not sold on the trade off for Evan Turner over Danny Granger - I think it gives them great leverage this offseason, but against the Heat, we've wrote about it already, I'm not sure that was the icing on the cake. And Andrew Bynum being out indefinitely doesn't strengthen the case. The continued growth of Paul George makes them better, but he still has a ways to go, on and off the floor, to become a true superstar.
The Pacers have the ingredients to beat the Heat. Will they do it? I think the answer lies more in what the Heat are going to do as opposed to what the Pacers can do. If Miami has a healthy Dwyane Wade, and he has been when he is playing (there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs) then they are much better. If Oden shows well against Hibbert, it helps. They miss Mike Miller, but Beasley gives them an element that haven't had before. The Heat's success will hinge on how healthy and together they are, not on what the opponent has. Miami's talent always trumps, it's whether they will be playing as a team at that point in the season.