(Sports Network) - Fair or not, it's championship or bust for the star-
studded Miami Heat, who will square off with the much-improved Indiana Pacers
in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The second-seeded Heat had little trouble disposing of the banged-up and often
dysfunctional New York Knicks, needing just five games to do so. Expectations
are so high in South Beach, however, losing one game to Carmelo Anthony and
Company was considered an affront by some observers.
But, it's all about winning 16 postseason games for the Heat, so much so that
LeBron James, the game's best player who is still searching for his first NBA
championship, has taken to wearing a mouthpiece with the Roman Numeral XVI or
16 on it.
James, of course, took a ton of "heat" last season in the NBA Finals when he
and his teammates were outplayed by Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks
as the Mavs defeated Miami for the NBA championship. LeBron's "inability" to
close out games on the big stage was the main focus.
When asked about the mouthpiece after the Heat's Game 1 win over the Knicks in
the first round, James told Fox Sports: "It's just inspirational. I know this
is the biggest part of the season, the second part of the season, so it's just
an inspiration for me."
No word if James will change to an "XII" mouthpiece for the Pacers but his
quest is down to 12 after Miami finished off the Knicks with a 106-95 win in
James, as usual, had a solid all-around effort in the clincher with 29 points,
eight rebounds and seven assists.
The seventh-seeded Knicks were beset with injuries before and during the
series, however, and weren't really a test.
Amare Stoudemire missed Game 3 with an injured left hand which he suffered
when he punched a fire extinguisher after a loss in Game 2. Veteran point
guard Baron Davis, who was starting in place of the injured Jeremy Lin,
suffered devastating knee injuries in Game 4. Also, defensive stalwart Iman
Shumpert was lost to a torn ACL in a 33-point Game 1 setback.
"It's really a shame the injuries they went through," Heat coach Erik
Spoelstra said. "Nobody wants to see it. We want to play teams at their best.
We were able to persevere."
The third-seeded Pacers, meanwhile, finished off Orlando in five games Tuesday
to advance past the first round of the playoffs for the first time since
"We feel like this is just the beginning of a big run. We're excited about
where we're at as a basketball team," Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said.
It can be argued though, that Indiana really wasn't tested either since the
Magic were without superstar center Dwight Howard, who was lost to season-
ending back surgery, for the entire set.
"That team fought extremely hard the entire series and really made it a
challenging series with their style of play, their energy and their effort,"
Vogel said about the Magic. "My hat is off to them."
The only playoff meeting between the Pacers and Heat came in 2004 in the East
semifinals with Indiana winning in six games. Miami won three of the four
encounters this season, however.
"We've played some great ball against them," James said. "I think we gave them
more problems than they gave us. It's going to be a great series."
POINT GUARD: Darren Collison entered the season as the Pacers' starting point
guard but Vogel made the switch to George Hill after Indiana played so well
with him running the show down the stretch. Hill is lightning quick and offers
more explosiveness than Collison, although he's also apt to make a few more
mistakes. Either way, both players can help as evidenced by Collison scoring
15 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter of Game 5 against Orlando.
"He's stepped it up," Vogel said of Hill before the playoffs started. "I mean
he did it in San Antonio. They had Tony Parker, probably headed to the Hall of
Fame. He gets hurt and George Hill comes in and coach (Gregg) Popovich is not
sure whether to start Tony Parker anymore. George Hill is doing the same thing
here. He's playing terrific basketball at both ends of the court and is a big
reason why we are on this roll."
Mario Chalmers will likely get the majority of the minutes at the point for
Miami but James and Wade do most of the playmaking. Chalmers is quick and
athletic enough to keep up with either Hill or Collison on the defensive end
but remains a very streaky player thanks to a questionable jumper.
SHOOTING GUARD: Wade, the NBA Finals MVP in 2006 and a former scoring
champion, remains an athletic marvel and one of the league's best finishers
around the rim. He plays recklessly and can handle the playmaking role,
something his transition and penetration skills are tailor-made for. Wade is
also a better option than James as a closer late even after his Game 4 miscue
against New York. That breakneck style, however, makes Wade susceptible to
injuries at any time and he missed 17 games during the regular season with
a host of nagging bumps and bruises.
The rangy Paul George is an ascending player for Indiana that can handle the
ball very well for his size and can run the floor. It remains to be seen if he
has the quickness to stay with Wade or James for long periods but if he does,
his length could cause problems.
CENTER: Roy Hibbert, the 7-2 Georgetown product, made his first All-Star team
this season for the Pacers and has turned into one of the NBA's top five
pivots. He's still not quite as physical as you would like for someone his
size but in a league short on quality centers, you certainly won't be getting
any complaints from Vogel or the Pacers.
The Heat don't have a legitimate center so Chris Bosh starts and mans a lot of
minutes in the middle. Bosh, obviously, isn't a natural center but has the
offensive skills and quickness to make things difficult for Hibbert, who will
likely be more effective as a weak-side defender in this series. Hibbert also
doesn't have the pure offensive skills or the type of go-to move down low that
will expose Bosh's defensive limitations.
"Hibbert is a challenge, but I'm more than capable of meeting that challenge,"
Bosh told the Miami Herald. "He's a load down there. He's talented. I have no
problem doing my part. ... I'm the center."
SMALL FORWARD: James is really incomparable at this stage. He's an
unbelievable athlete with freakish strength, size and skill that can play and
defend four different positions and still be the best player on the floor at
any one of them. He averaged 27.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg and 5.6 apg while shooting 47.8
percent from the floor against the Knicks. When the jumper is falling, James
is virtually unstoppable at the offensive end and can take any wing player,
point or power forward and lock them down as a defender. The only hope for the
opposition is to harass James into some bad shooting nights and pray his
teammates come up small. Like most teams, Indiana will try to turn James into
a jump shooter.
"LeBron James is unbelievable," NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said.
"People give him a hard time. He has to play so hard. He makes everyone around
him better. He has to carry so much weight on this team."
Danny Granger is a very good, All-Star level player at times but he's
overmatched here. Granger can usually bang down low or step out and sink the
three, making him a tough offensive matchup for just about anyone not named
"There is always criticism for a team's best player and Danny Granger gets a
lot of criticism for what he's not," Vogel said. "What he is, he's a big shot
POWER FORWARD: David West has quickly turned into Indiana's best all-around
player. A former two-time All-Star in New Orleans, the veteran is the
prototypical power forward who can push people around on the blocks thanks to
his impressive strength. He nearly averaged a double-double of 15.8 points and
9.6 rebounds against the Magic in the first round while torturing the NBA's
Most Improved Player, Ryan Anderson, with his defense. West's arrival in Indy
has also freed Hibbert's ability to focus on defense and rebounding -- his two
"He was dominant, they [the Magic] had no answer for him," Vogel said when
talking about West. "He either scored or got doubled and found somebody for a
3-point shot. That's the vision we have for our power post offense. He was at
Miami native Udonis Haslem is the Heat's glue-guy, a solid defender and
rebounder with an excellent mid-range jumper. Haslem, however, doesn't have
the athleticism or pure strength to keep up with a player like West.
BENCH: The Pacers' bench is probably more talented than their counterparts in
this series. With Collison now joining with Leandro Barbosa and Tyler
Hansbrough, that's three solid reserves that Vogel can count on a consistent
basis. Lou Amundson has also given his coach some energy minutes when needed.
"That's who we are," Vogel said when talking about his team's versatility and
reliance on a whole host of players. "Five guys can be go-to-guys. Ball
movement is your best friend and you invite double teams whether it's the
pick-and-roll game or playing out of the post.
"You have a mind set of drawing people to the ball and moving it knowing that
you have four other options that can put the ball in the basket. It's a pretty
The Heat bench has been maligned throughout the season but Erik Spoelstra has
three solid role players he has counted on, three-point specialist Mike
Miller, who banged in 11 treys against the Knicks, defensive specialist Shane
Battier, who makes things easier on James by taking on the opposition's best
wing player for major minutes, and center Joel Anthony, a natural shot blocker
and energy player.
"When this Miami Heat team is clicking, it's when their bench comes in and
produces offensively for them," TNT analyst Reggie Miller said.
COACHING: Vogel has been a Godsend to the Pacers after the surly Jim
O'Brien's regime, a coach with a bad disposition and worse communication
skills. Vogel reinvented things with his preparation and by connecting with
his players and allowing for more input, especially from his stars.
Spoelstra, a Pat Riley disciple, first joined the Heat in 1995 as the team's
video coordinator and moved up from there. He preaches defense and
conditioning but has never been regarded as an NBA heavyweight.
"It is championship or bust here," Miller said. "Ever since the decision,
that's all they've been talking about and obviously it's going to fall on the
shoulders of Erik Spoelstra."
PREDICTION: The Pacers are probably deeper and more well-rounded than the
Heat. They are long and athletic with an imposing bench but what they don't
have are home run hitters and Miami has three in James, Wade and Bosh.
Back in the 1980s Reggie Jackson talked about being "the straw that stirred
the drink" for the New York Yankees. Jackson was often derided by critics for
striking out two much but then he would hit a three-run home run and change
the complexion of any game.
That's what the Pacers are facing here. You can outplay the Heat for large
portions of any game but James or Wade might respond with a stretch of three
or four minutes that make your jaw drop and turn a three- or four-point
deficit into a 10-point advantage.
Indiana can play sound fundamental basketball all night long but the Heat's
two superstars will be lurking and ready to deliver the knockout punch.
Eventually. the Pacers won't get up.
"I say it goes 4-2 [Miami]," Former Heat star Shaquille O'Neal said. "It is
going to be a great series. D-Wade and LeBron are on a mission, they have too
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: HEAT in 6
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