The Indiana Pacers–Miami Heat matchup was the series every basketball fan wanted to see: An Eastern Conference Finals rematch of the only two teams in the East that people acknowledged as title contenders.
With Derrick Rose out of action after making an unsuccessful return to the NBA, and the Brooklyn Nets‘ squad of ageing veterans failing to meet their high expectations, it was clear from the outset which two teams were likely to race to the top of the regular season standings.
What they tried to do
After forcing Miami to seven games last season, the Pacers were focused on obtaining the best record in the conference and winning home-court advantage. Indiana wanted revenge and they wanted to do it on their own turf. They were hellbent on raising the Eastern Conference Championship Trophy over their arch-enemies and claiming what they felt was rightly theirs.
Indiana knew that if this year’s Eastern Conference Finals was anything like last season’s, having home-court advantage for a Game 7 would be a huge benefit, especially against back-to-back defending champions who ended up having a flawless home-game record during the postseason.
The Pacers wanted to beat Miami and a second shot at reaching the Finals; but this time around, they wanted as many advantages as possible.
How they tried to do it
As the season neared its end, the Pacers raced off to the NBA’s best record, giving themselves a favourable advantage during the postseason.
Indiana also acquired some new talent along the way, which on paper, looked to be a troublesome collection of weapons that could really rattle Miami’s feathers.
The first of the Pacers’ acquisitions came when Andrew Bynum was signed by the team on Feb. 1. The 26-year-old seven-footer had been battling injuries, but for a reported cost of $1 million, the deal gave Indiana a backup centre and a financially low-risk shot of hurting the Heat down in the paint.
The Pacers also signed Evan Turner on Feb. 20, hoping that he could give them some productive minutes and a few extra points off the bench.
Though the two trades looked to provide Indiana with the missing pieces they so desperately craved, their master plan didn’t quite work out in the end.
Bynum only played in two games with Indiana and averaged 11.5 points and 9.5 rebounds. And on March 21, he was put on the inactive list due to knee soreness before the team ruled him out indefinitely.
Evan Turner didn’t quite live up to his expectations either. The former No. 2 pick of the 2010 draft did average a season-low 21.1 minutes per game with his new team, but his production plummeted too. He averaged career lows in points, rebounds, field goal percentage, and the lowest numbers of assists since his rookie season.
View Evan Turner’s career stats in the table below:
With some new talent on board and the best record in the East, was this enough to beat Miami?
Despite their efforts of being crowned Kings of the East during the regular season, the Pacers’ mission was unsuccessful.
For the third straight year, and the second straight year in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat sent Indiana home and ended their championship dreams.
After six games, the Heat were back to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season; a feat which has been almost 30 years in the making. The last franchise to make it to four straight NBA Finals was the Boston Celtics, led by Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, who went to the Finals from 1984 to 1987, winning titles in 1984 and 1986.
Though their attempt of edging past the Heat was unsuccessful, the Pacers did provide basketball fans with memorable moments in what proved to be an entertaining series. Here are my top three surprising takeaways from the series:
Lance Stephenson’s crazy antics
NBA fans will never forget Lance Stephenson’s antics during the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat.
Though many of his actions were viewed as controversial, there’s no denying that he was funny on occasion, too.
Across the short span of a six games, Stephenson was fined $15,000 for flopping twice, invaded a Miami Heat huddle, committed a flagrant foul on Norris Cole, and most notably, blew air into LeBron James’ ear.
Stephenson’s mind games did seem to work, though, as James was held to a career playoff-low seven points thanks to foul trouble in Game 5.
Lengthy stretches sat on the bench forced a poor performance out of James, who finished the night with seven points (on 2-of-10 shooting), four assists, two rebounds and three turnovers. Consequently, the Pacers were able to capitalise of his lack of production and managed to force a Game 6 back in Miami.
Following Game 5, James said the following during a postgame press conference:
I’m just here to play basketball, man. All the extra curricular activities, I don’t really get into. I’m just trying to win. We need one more game to get to the Finals. That’s my only concern. As competitors and professionals … we put ourselves in a position to win.
Despite James’ statement, it was clear that Stephenson’s actions were affecting the Heat. And in Game 6, Stephenson proved he was far from finished and was causing friction once again.
After James got away with an accidental tap to Stephenson’s head when closing out a three-pointer, Stephenson responded with a deliberate hit to James’ face during a dead-ball situation:
Shortly after, Stephenson was called for a flagrant-one after clotheslining Norris Cole:
Miami native, Udonis Haslem, had seen enough and decided to step in. He approached Stephenson whilst uttering the words “I’m gonna f*** you up.”
Sensing things were starting to heat up, James held UD back and diffused the situation before anything else happened.
But when it was all said and done, Stephenson showed that his actions were not malicious, and shared the following message on his Instagram account:
I have much respect for LeBron and the heat. This was a great series they deserve it all love to Heat. Want to say that I’m so proud of my teammates we work so hard all year to get to point, Everything is a learning experience and getting better every year love u guys Pacer nation and thanks to all of our Pacer fans love y’all too.
Though Stephenson’s wild shenanigans overwhelmed his play on the court, statistically, he was the Pacers’ third best player throughout the series.
Entering next season, it will be interesting to see where soon-to-be free agent Stephenson ends up. With an estimated value of $4-10 million per year, there’s a good chance that he’ll review his options and consider being traded. And despite expressing strong feelings against some of Stephenson’s actions during the postseason, Larry Bird, Pacers’ president of basketball operations, is conscious that he might lose one of his best players.
“I think his ceiling is what he wants it to be,” said Bird. “I always want him back. You just don’t let talent like that walk away if you can help it.”
Dwyane Wade’s rise after his demise
The so-called ‘demise of Dwyane Wade’ has been a hot topic amongst basketball fans over the course of last couple of seasons. Once known for his ability to single-handedly take over a game, a summer of shock treatment on both of his knees hindered his performance during the 2013 playoffs, which led to criticism from Kevin Durant just before the 2013-14 season began.
To the surprise of many, Wade responded in convincing fashion and posted some of the best stats of his career.
Some of his totals may have dropped, but when factoring his efficiency, you have to respect Wade’s 10.77 percent rise in field goal percentage when comparing his 2013-14 regular season stats to his career averages. Efficiency wins.
View the table below to view Dwyane Wade’s stats during the Big Three era:
Determined not to make the same mistake as last year and burn Wade out before the playoffs, Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra decided to rest the 10-time All-Star for 28 games during the regular season. As you can see from the tables below, resting Wade paid off:
Wade’s stats during the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals
Wade’s stats during the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals
Playing against the Pacers in an Eastern Conference Finals rematch just one year later, a well-rested Wade saw his efficiency improve from the field, the three-point line and the charity stripe; he also averaged more points assists and steals per game, too.
Following Game 6 of the series, Wade said the following during a post-game press conference:
We don’t take this for granted. Hopefully our fans and supporters in Miami don’t take this for granted either … We’ve worked as a unit, we’ve sacrificed as individuals to be in this moment and this position. We understand where we’re at right now, but it’s still crazy too.
Moving forward, much like his improvements in the Pacers rematch, it will be interesting to see if Wade manages to up his efficiency and production during this year’s Finals in a similar fashion. It’s quite apparent that Wade doesn’t have many years left playing at a world class level, but it looks as if he has enough left in the tank to finish off the postseason strong.
Centred around disappointment
Roy Hibbert wasn’t there to stop James’ game-winner in Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, but we all knew exactly what he was capable of.
Watch LeBron James’ 2013 ECF Game 1 game-winner without Hibbert on the floor below:
Miami’s last two championships coined the phrase ‘small ball,’ a style of play used by a team that sacrifices height and low post offence. Though this is partly true with players like Chris Anderson on deck, Indiana’s size and length posed as an intimidating threat for the Heat, which on paper, gave them the upper hand.
Realising their weaknesses, the Heat took a gamble and signed Greg Oden during the offseason. If the former No. 1 overall pick could get back in shape, all he had to do was stand there and be big, grab some boards and clean up some missed shots.
Despite being injured for the majority of his career, many analysts felt that Oden was the key for the Heat’s success. However, Miami’s uncertainty clashed heads with inconsistency when another big with high hopes was unable to deliver the goods on both end of the floor, and that man was Roy Hibbert.
Hibbert’s 0-point, 0-rebound, five-foul effort in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals showed us exactly how unreliable he can be.
Once a hot conversation piece for weapons that could potentially put an end to Miami’s hopes of three-peating, Hibbert quickly eliminated the doubt in many questioners’ minds about whether he could propel the Pacers to the Finals.
In 2013’s Eastern Conference Finals, Hibbert averaged 22.1 points on .557 percent shooting and 10.4 rebounds; and in this year’s series, he averaged just 10.8 points on .415 percent shooting and 7.7 rebounds. Hibbert’s number of blocked shots also dropped from an even 1 block per game to 0.8, too.
Hibbert failed to live up to his expectations and perform anywhere near the level of play he was able to reach last year. One of the main reasons for this was not playing to his true identity: blocking shots and protecting the rim. Frank Vogel and the Pacers’ coaching staff forced Hibbert to create a lot more offence down in the post, which he often didn’t look comfortable doing.
Understanding that Hibbert was a shell of his former self and unable to make much of an impact during the series, Larry Bird suggested that he worked on his game during the offseason.
The Pacers’ president of basketball operations said the following about the former Georgetown Hoya:
I would encourage Roy to try to get with one of the greats. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the best teachers. Bill Walton is great. They know how to play the position as well as anyone ever has.
Perhaps if Hibbert was able to be as productive as he was last year, Indiana would have–at the very least–stretched the series to seven games. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if he develops during the offseason and is able to become a true centrepiece for Indiana’s offence.
Indiana looked as if they had their best chance yet against the Heat this year.
That said, making trades and working hard all year to ensure they snatched home court advantage simply wasn’t enough. Perhaps working too hard could have been a major cause of their downfall, though. I mean, look at Wade: he was well-rested and able to perform to the standard who many felt he couldn’t reach anymore.
Indiana, on the other hand, became obsessed; obsessed with winning every regular season game they could; obsessed with reaching the Finals, and most of all: obsessed with beating the Miami Heat.
Sometimes obsession overtakes passion and determination and prevents you from accomplishing what you set out to achieve.
It’s like the old story, The Tortoise and the Hare:
“Slow and steady wins the race.”
Thanks to poise and collectiveness, Miami were steady all season long. Wade was like the Tortoise, biding his time and resting when he needed to whilst Indiana was the Hare racing to the finish.
If the Pacers hope to finally beat Miami next season, perhaps they should redraw their strategy and utilise their talent to its fullest potential.
Redraw their strategy they may, but it’s quite possible that the only game plan Indiana can implement to beat the Heat is slowing down and becoming the metaphorical Tortoise; either that or Hibbert turns into a 2015 version of Shaquille O’neal and becomes the best centre in the league…
I guess we’ll have to wait and see.