It’s never too early to begin thinking about the playoffs.
Sure, the regular season has been great so far, if you’re ignoring that one of the conferences currently has three teams with a winning record, but that doesn’t mean we can’t already begin thinking about the potential the playoffs have in store for us. A lot can happen in those seven games. It can make or break a franchise, sending one into the vaults of the elite and the other into a downward spiral that may result in the breakup of the team. It can also make or break a player, essentially putting their entire legacy on the line if that player’s influence on the team is that great.
Seven games is enough for disdain and frustration to grow to uncontrollable levels. If you were to play a rival 48 minutes per night for up to two weeks, chances are that you, too, would end up finding some faults in the opposition. That only worsens if you’re on the losing end.
Not only can seven games create a rift between yourself and your opponent, but also between you and your teammates. These series have performed a great service in weeding out the players that don’t belong and don’t want to belong.
Many quality teams have been broken up because of their inability to beat seven games, resulting in a do-over on the outlook of the franchise.
It’s what a player’s entire career comes down to really. If a player can’t beat seven games, he’ll never been regarded as one of the best. Only those who conquer and showcase their fortitude and ability to withstand pressure from all aspects of the game, from their teammates, front office, media and fan expectations, are recognized later on as the elite.
An entire player’s career? The outlook of a franchise? This is why we love the playoffs. Not just for the entertainment value, but because of the ensuing result for both teams. With teams so quick to change their course, the playoffs have never been more significant.
While we wait another four months for the season that matters to begin, we take a look at five dream matchups we hope to see.
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The series that we are most likely to see, on account of the quality of the East, the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers are destined to meet in the postseason for a third consecutive year.
The Heat, sans Chris Bosh, topped the Pacers in six games in the 2012 semifinals behind enormous efforts from Dwyane Wade, scoring 41 in the Game 6 clincher, and LeBron James, dropping 40 points and 19 rebounds in a critical Game 4 win.
Indiana decided to change their strategy last year in their Eastern Conference Finals matchup. After effectively denying Roy Hibbert the previous year, Miami had no answer on either side of the ball against the 7-2 center, allowing him to average a double-double over the series that extended seven games. Miami wound up taking Game 7 by 19 points, in a game where Paul George was limited to seven points on nine shots, but the Heat came a LeBron layup at the buzzer away from failing to reach the NBA Finals for a third consecutive time.
The Pacers have played as well as they have in the past three seasons. Paul George is playing at an MVP pace, Roy Hibbert is making a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year, and the Pacers are off to an NBA-best 27-6.
They also enter the season with a significantly improved bench, replacing the likes of D.J. Augustin and Tyler Hansbrough with C.J. Watson and Luis Scola, although Watson has yet to find his touch, shooting below 40 percent this season. They also got back Danny Granger from injuries that have plagued him the past year-and-a-half.
One of their wins and one of their losses both came at the hands of the Heat in close contests. In the first game of the four-game regular season series, Indiana defeated Miami 90-84, keeping each member of the Big Three under 20 points for the first time in their time together. Hibbert made all the difference on offense, meanwhile, scoring 24 points on 16 shots and committing only two fouls.
However, Miami exacted revenge with the game back home, winning 97-94 behind a 32-point effort from Dwyane Wade and a 24-point effort from LeBron James.
The greatest benefactor for the Heat turned out to be getting Hibbert into foul trouble. Playing only 23 minutes, recording five fouls and taking only three shots, Hibbert didn’t have close to the same influence he had in the previous meeting between the two teams.
Miami held back by their own futile three-point shooting, shooting below 30 percent in both contests despite getting plenty of open looks against the league’s top defense, in terms of efficiency.
Indiana has made it a purpose this year to gun for the Heat. Just as the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics have done in previous years, they treat Miami differently from other teams, exerting a far greater effort and carrying a vendetta against the opponent that beat them in the playoffs in previous seasons. Plus, the Pacers believe that they have been the better team. They still claim to have been the superior squad last year.
I’d say the 27-6 record and the league’s top defense is enough to show the NBA, specifically the Heat, that Indiana has never been more serious about making a title run. They’re going to attempt a year-long boast of being the league’s best team, starting off with this hot start to the regular season and ending with the first title in franchise history.
The key to a series between these two teams will come down to Hibbert, the league’s top post defender, allowing opponents to shoot 41 percent at the rim and sending back 2.7 shots per game. If they have him on the floor and getting the benefit of the verticality rule, the Pacers are keeping the Heat from doing what they want to do, which is scoring in the paint.
The Heat currently rank fifth in the league in points in the paint per game. They need that dribble penetration in the paint not only to score those points near the basket, but to also open up the floor and get open looks for shooters.
With Hibbert on the floor, that becomes a significant problem for Miami. However, if he’s in foul trouble, as he was in Miami’s win over Indiana this year, the Heat can get into the paint at will and score 50 points in the paint against a team that only yields 35 of those points per game.
Naturally, Indiana leads the league in points in the paint given up. They have the past two years.
This series is a must-see for two reasons. One, it’s a matchup of two of the league’s top defenses, and it’s always intriguing to see how the Heat attempt to overcome the presence of Roy Hibbert. Two, these teams don’t particularly like each other too much, with Indiana carrying two years of Heat-induced losses on its shoulders and the Heat having to listen to the Pacers believing they’re a better team.
Surprisingly, this is the only series out East worth seeing. I’m positive a majority of the NBA’s fanbase would rather skip the first two rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs in favor of a best-of-21 between the Heat and Pacers.