Kia NBA Countdown analysts Jalen Rose and Avery Johnson got together for a conference call to talk about the Eastern Conference showdown between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers that will air tonight, March 26, at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.
On the recent struggles of both the Heat and Pacers...
JALEN ROSE: Two examples of when the destination becomes more important than a journey. When you have an 82-game schedule, especially in an Eastern Conference that is littered with mediocrity beyond Indiana and beyond Miami, it's really a two-team race. The difference in the two, however, is one has been to three straight NBA Finals and are back-to-back champions and they have LeBron James, who is a four-time MVP. The other is the Pacers, who lost in Game 7, but they also understand that if the Game 7 is played in Indianapolis this year, their fortunes could change. So they're both still on a collision course, even though they've both been struggling here as of late.
Will the MVP be Kevin Durant or LeBron James?
AVERY JOHNSON: Kevin Durant was my MVP probably a month ago. I know LeBron James had some games, especially the 62-point game, and drew a lot of attention - even his game in Oklahoma where he had an outstanding performance and led Miami to a win. But Kevin Durant, MVP, whether he wins it by, in some people's eyes in Oklahoma, a landslide, or other folks around the country, by a nose - he has my vote. I think he's been everything that an MVP should be. He's been consistent. He's been clutch. He's been fearless, tough-minded.
I was fortunate to coach an MVP in Dirk Nowitzki in 2007, so I kind of know what it should look like. That's no knock on LeBron, but Kevin Durant is my MVP this year.
ROSE: I agree with Avery on KD being an MVP, having a terrific season. Flirting with being a 50, 40, 90 guy, basically often. He's a clutch performer. He's been out there consistently regardless of injuries to Westbrook, to Sefolosha to Perkins. He's helped bring along and nurture young players like Jackson and Perry Jones and Lamb, which is tough to do. Incorporate Caron Butler and Derek Fisher. I think he is and will be the league MVP.
On what's wrong with the Indiana Pacers and if they are in trouble moving forward...
ROSE: This is a subject that's going to be talked about by fans and media types alike between now and the end of the season. But only one thing should matter to the Pacers - that's hosting Game 7 against the Miami Heat, because that's where we're going. Yes, the Chicago Bulls have been a terrific story this year - Joakim Noah, all-NBA performer. They have done a terrific job having that team show up and play, same with the Brooklyn Nets getting themselves together. But clearly it's a two-team race. For all we say about the Pacers' struggles, they're still two games ahead of Miami and they play (tonight). So if they are going to continue to hold the number one spot, I think they have a great chance. Just like any team that holds Game 7 - 80% of the time, that team wins, so that's what they're looking for. I think that goal is still in front of them.
JOHNSON: You've got to look at the best player on the team. How is he functioning? You've got to look at point guard play. You've got to look at quality depth. Are they a good shooting team, a good defensive team? And I just think right now the Pacers are - it's a little bit alarming because they're struggling to score so badly.
They've had these droughts especially in quarters and I think in the first part of the season they weren't really a great first-half team, but they were so good in the third quarter. I think they had the highest plus/minus of any team in the third quarter and that's where they would really make their mark. But they've just been struggling to score.
I think here recently they scored like 80 something points against the Knicks or two 70-point games against Memphis and Chicago. I think that's a big concern. Then we can also look at the bench. We talked on Countdown about how a guy like Andrew Bynum could have such an impact on their depth because he would get guys like Evan Turner shots, and Scola, and C.J. Watson when he comes back from injury. You know, you saw a little flash of it. So I think the key believer or not is if they can get Bynum healthy to give them 12 or 16 minutes coming off the bench - that's going to help them tremendously because he has a skillset even Roy Hibbert doesn't have.
But I think (it's) going to be a great night. The players like Paul George, it's going to be their chance to really perform at a high level, be really efficient because his team needs him to do an awful lot for them to be successful, as a championship-caliber team.
But I'm a little bit concerned about Indiana. I think time will tell if my concerns are warranted or not.
Where do you stand on the Heat going into this Indiana game?
ROSE: I think they rested Wade (Monday) so he could play against Indiana. They're kind of putting him on what I call a Tim Duncan plan, where they pick and choose which games to rest him and play him high minutes or not. It's a smart move for a team that's played so much basketball over the last handful of years.
Again, Miami-Indiana, best two teams in the East. One of the worst things that happened to both of those teams, they're not being pushed by the rest of the field. But the Miami Heat don't have to win 66 games this year like they did last year. In Indiana, all they have to do is worry about keeping home-court advantage.
Yeah, LeBron has had some struggles in the fourth quarter here as of late, but he's still a four-time MVP and he's going to play at an elite level once the playoffs come. So I don't have the concerns about either one of those teams that some people do. And I think that the more important thing is who has the number one spot? I think Indiana really needs that number one spot to put some pressure on the Miami Heat come playoff time.
JOHNSON: I don't have too many concerns about Miami. When you have been to the Finals three years in a row and you've won back-to-back championships, you've played three seasons of, even in the regular season, of playoff basketball, because every night you go into Houston, you go into Dallas or you go into Milwaukee or Brooklyn, New Orleans and it's a championship night for those teams if they can knock off the Heat.
Even in the Heat's first year, where they were an unproven commodity for lack of a better word or unproven team, teams wanted to beat them because people were somewhat irritated that the Big Three got together and teamed up to form this team that was bragging about winning not one, not two, but five championships. So every night the team is mentally and physically pushed to the brink.
Now here we are in the latter part of their fourth year on this run that they've had. You'll have some moments where you'll lose some games. But I am not worried about the Heat. The Heat are only concerned about making it through the regular season - whether they have the No. 1 seed or the No. 2 seed. If Dwyane Wade is healthy, the rest of their team is functioning at a high level come playoff time. Whether they have home-court advantage or not, I'm not concerned about the Heat. I think they have quality, depth, and experience, championship experience with Ray Allen and Norris Cole and Haslem and Rashard Lewis, who doesn't get many minutes.
But I'm not concerned about the Heat.
Rose and Johnson will join Doris Burke on Wednesday's NBA Countdown at 7 p.m. to preview the game while Mike Tirico and analyst Jeff Van Gundy will provide game commentary with reporter Israel Gutierrez. SportsCenter will also be on site in Indianapolis with all-day coverage led by Sage Steele and analysts Tim Legler, Michael Wilbon and Stephen A. Smith.