The Indiana Pacers maintained their perfect start improving to 5-0 courtesy of a 97-80 victory over Derick Rose and the Chicago Bulls. Everything has gone right for the Pacers in the early season. Paul George has elevated his game to the next level while the bench has been drastically better with C.J. Watson, Donald Sloan and especially Luis Scola adding depth to a line-up, which was accused of being a little thin last season. The question is, can Indiana topple the Miami Heat and end their three-year reign as the Eastern conference’s representative in the NBA finals?
The wave of support for the idea has certainly started to build. It starts and ends with Paul George. The 23-year old small forward announced himself as the team’s best player and emergent star last season averaging 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game in the regular season before averaging 19-7-5 numbers in the postseason. As much as the lack of bench depth was a concern last year, there were also concerns that the Pacers lacked a true superstar. Very few NBA championship teams have lacked a true superstar.
After signing a major contract extension last summer and an offseason where there was some debate about whether he or Danny Granger would be the team’s go-to scorer, George has started the 2013-14 NBA season with the look of a player ready to be a dominant force. Through five games this season George is averaging 26-8-4. Not only that, but he also has the look of a player who believes that he is the team’s superstar and is playing like ‘the man’. It’s only very early in the season, but there are clear signs that George might just be ready to join the NBA’s elite.
If the Pacers are going to challenge the Heat and its trio of superstars, they will need a go-to guy, and that will need to be George. Only time will tell whether the star from Fresno State can live up to that hype.
Besides the emergence of George, last season’s seven-game Eastern conference finals series should give Indiana great hope that they pose a serious match-up challenge for Miami. Last season’s series saw Frank Vogel’s team confidently dominate the inside game with the Heat unable to find any sort of answer against the tandem of center Roy Hibbert and power forward David West. There is size throughout this line-up with Scola adding grit and depth to the front court and even Lance Stephenson is an extremely long and athletic shooting guard.
The Heat simply do not have an answer to that sort of size. Greg Oden still hasn’t played a minute in the regular season and there remain serious doubts about whether he will ever be able to play. Chris Andersen (or ‘Birdman’) brings plenty of grit, but there isn’t a lot else on the front court in terms of physical presence. Udonis Haslem is less capable of playing big minutes and it looks increasingly like Chris Bosh will be thrust into a role that probably doesn’t quite suit his skill set. Miami GM Pat Riley will surely look at resolving his team’s front court issues during the season because this match-up should be a major concern for the Heat.
Historically the challenge of reaching four straight NBA finals is a serious challenge. No team has done it since the Celtics did between 1984-1987. Of all the teams likely to make Miami’s magical run come unstuck, the Pacers are the clear favorites.
Of course, the challenge of usurping Miami must not be under-estimated. LeBron James is the NBA’s best player and he has the support of a fierce competitor and terrific scorer in Dwyane Wade. The 31-year old Wade is hoping to avoid the injury problems that have plagued him more recently. He has 20+ points in the past three games and looks to have regained a step from recent years. The real test of his knee will come in terms of endurance over the course of a very long season.
No team has a third scoring threat like Bosh and the likes of Shane Battier and Ray Allen can hit perimeter shots with the very best in the league. Throw Mario Chalmers into the mix and it’s easy to understand why the Heat are two-time NBA champions and have appeared in three straight finals.
Maybe the Pacers are ready to stop the Heat, but ‘King James’ and the rest of his team will not be unseated easily.