Thursday, May 30, 2013
Schadenfreude and the NBA Eastern Finals
A little over three years ago, in the lead up to "The Decision," I wrote a paean for LeBron James to say with his, and my, hometown team. While I am absolutely positive that LeBron read it, and was moved enough for a single tear to roll down his cheek, he villainously didn't listen and now we are where all Cleveland fans feared: The Cavs suck and LeBron got his title.
So while I didn't do any jersey-burning like some of my fellow Northeast Ohioans, I understand the sentiment, and pulling for the Heat to lose has returned my interest in the NBA playoffs to levels they haven't been to since I was a teenager. I'm a college sports guy, and when it comes to pro team sports, I gravitate more towards the NFL, European soccer leagues, and to a lesser extent, MLB before the NBA.
But I think the Pacers just might be the team to give Cleveland fans a modicum of succor just like Dallas did two seasons ago, so I'm glued to the television every game.
We knew already that, statistically, the Pacers were the top defensive team in the league. But to see it writ large on the highest stage is somewhat startling. Post play favors the Pacers so emphatically and distinctly in this matchup, and its rare to see a team take on Miami be at such a marked disadvantage in any area.
Roy Hibbert and David West both had 12 rebounds against the Heat in Game 4, and if we tabulated the winner by rebounds instead of points, the game would have been a blowout (49-30). But the most incredible stat of the game is this: Indiana had 33 offensive rebound opportunities, and got the board on 15 of them. You can't win if you give a team second chances on almost half their misses, but to their credit, Miami nearly did.
The inside dominance of Indiana is juxtaposed curiously with the recent fawning over LeBron's defensive versatility, particularly in the low post. Sports Illustrated just graced him with a cover story, his 19th, focused on his defense. It praised his ability to guard centers, and SI.com followed the story with an adjunct piece that focus exclusively on his excellent defensive work in the paint.
The Heat, I am certain, would rather let LeBron be LeBron and be the all-everything player he is rather than unduly focusing his efforts on one area of the floor. But I'm not sure they have a choice now. Chris Bosh is banged up and has been outclassed by Roy Hibbert to a startling extent. Bosh simply looks old out there. He was always sort of the third amigo of the Big Three, and I'm no longer convinced he's even the Heat's third-best player. Dwyane Wade is banged up too and has not been particularly superlative.
This means that, as Paul Flannery nicely put it, "The whole point of The Decision was joining forces with other like-minded talents, but three years into this great experiment, LeBron is back in Cleveland, just with bigger names attached to the supporting cast."
To be sure, coming into this series, the Heat were still James, Wade, and Bosh, with the surprising revelation of Chris Andersen, another player who laid an egg in Game 4. But they've been outshone by a new Big Three: Hibbert, West, and Paul George, with the surprising revelation of Lance Stephenson. How many casual NBA fans had even heard of those guys save Hibbert and maybe West coming into this series?
But in their relative obscurity is the danger that their performances, particularly on offense, this series are outliers. I'm excited that Indiana is going toe-to-toe with Heat, but make no mistake: Miami is still the better team, they've proven it over the course of the season, and they have two more games in this series, if they need them, at home. For their part, Indiana never blinked once in their two games in American Airlines Arena, taking one game and forcing the other to overtime. The way they win this series is to keep doing that: Don't blink, believe, and keep playing the defense you are known for and the offense you are not.
This series is going to go the full seven games, and Game 7 will be close.