Game 5 preview: Heat vs. Pacers
Will the Pacers fight off elimination or are the Heat going to put the finishing touches on another Eastern Conference crown? Our 5-on-5 crew tackles all the need-to-know storylines heading into Wednesday's Game 5 (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET).
1. Fact or Fiction: Indiana doesn't have enough to beat Miami in a series.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: Fiction. They can beat Miami, but they have to punish the Heat's small-ball more than they have. The Heat are getting smaller and smaller, and the Pacers have been slow to counter on the boards and in the paint. Put simply, if the Pacers don't have enough of something, that something is time.
Daniel Nowell, TrueHoop Network Fact. It seems like the Pacers' roster should have what it takes, but in the many ways the playoffs can change how you think about "enough" -- enough tactical savvy, enough ballhandling, enough of a bench -- the Pacers have proven they come up short where the Heat are concerned.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN.com: Fact. Just like last season, they're short a few people who can dribble. What's strange is that this fatal flaw isn't exactly what's killing them in this particular matchup. Indiana's vaunted defense is getting crushed by the Heat, who are scoring more easily in this series than they did against the average team this season. The Pacers just aren't good enough to suffer any defensive lull.
Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: Fiction. We saw these same five starters take Miami to seven games last year, and they were a buzzer-beating LeBron James layup away from going home in Game 3 up 2-0. Between that, and this being a less-stacked Heat team, Indiana absolutely has the personnel to win. Maybe only one out of five times -- and probably not right now, given its mental state -- but it's a definite possibility.
Michael Wallace, Heat Index: Fiction. The Pacers have the personnel to get past the two-time defending NBA champions. But what they lack is the personality and leadership. What the Pacers have done the past two seasons in the playoffs against Miami was no fluke. At one point earlier in this series, the teams had split their previous 14 meetings. But it's clear now that Indiana has regressed in confidence and mental toughness.
2. Fact or Fiction: If you included the playoffs, LeBron would win MVP.
Haberstroh: Fact. LeBron's defense was lackluster during the regular season, which was the real reason he didn't win the award. The Heat were much better defensively when he was on the bench. Now, James has dialed it up, and in the postseason, the opposite is true. Engaged LeBron is an MVP LeBron.
Nowell: Fact. This hypothetical makes me uneasy, but LeBron has elevated his performance in the playoffs for a team that looks remarkably thin much of the time. Kevin Durant deserved his regular-season award, but the playoffs have shown that the Heat are more dependent on LeBron than ever and can still look like a juggernaut.
Strauss: Fact. LeBron is scoring more efficiently, rebounding more and turning the ball over less than he did in the regular season. Kevin Durant's postseason production has tailed off a bit. Thankfully for Durant, there's no "MVP through all of the games up to Game 5 of the conference finals award."
Wade: Fact. I know this because I went to Dictionary.com and it defined that word as "something that actually exists; reality; truth."
Wallace: Fiction. Give Kevin Durant the credit he's due. He's the MVP this season. LeBron has said as much. And last I checked, Durant still has the Thunder playing in the conference finals, just like LeBron. And OKC has had a much tougher trek. LeBron has carried the Heat on his back this postseason, as he typically does. But there's no reason to recall the hardware just yet. Besides, the Finals MVP is still up for grabs.
3. Fact or Fiction: Paul George is a star.
Haberstroh: Fact. First of all, he started in the All-Star Game. But it's not like he has fallen off this postseason. He's averaging 21.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists with an above-average true shooting percentage in the playoffs. He's an elite player in my book, and his frustrated comments after Game 4 don't change that.
Nowell: Fact. George is the best player on a team too good to withhold the "star" designation. He's not the bucket-getter he looked like earlier this season, but because he's still impossibly young with room to grow, and because his defense is often world-class -- sure, he's a star.
Strauss: Fact. If we celebrated defense as much as offense there wouldn't be a doubt. He's an incredible defensive player, with his ghost-like ability to get around any screen and knack for shielding his mark from getting passes. I get frustrated with his poor finishing around the rim, but he's awesome on balance.
Wade: Fact. I'm not altogether sure what "star" means, but Paul George is certainly one of the better basketball players alive. And he probably checks off the other necessary boxes by appearing in a few major ad campaigns and showing up on Jimmy Kimmel's show a few months ago in what I can only presume was his Halloween costume.
Wallace: Fact. George is a top-20 player in this league, possibly even top-12. That makes him a legitimate star. But it's fair to question whether he's an elite player who is ready to lead his team in all facets to postseason prosperity. George is not yet 25, and his best years are still ahead. There's certainly no shame in falling short against LeBron James and a potentially legendary Heat team.
4. Fact or Fiction: The LeBron-era Heat are the best team since MJ's Bulls.
Haberstroh: Fiction, for now. I reserve the right to change this after we see how this Heat team plays out. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers were just so dominant. You know how many games they lost in the 2001 playoffs? One. They went 16-1 to win the title. Three titles in four Finals appearances. Let's see if the Heat can match.
Nowell: Fact. Fiction, maybe, for now. I'll wait and see what happens with these Finals before getting definitive here, but those 2000-02 Lakers were a pretty good team.
Strauss: Fiction. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers were inexorable in that recently deceased isolation era. While I'm not sure they'd be quite as amazing with modern rules that hurt post play, they were a better team in their time than the Heat are in this one.
Wade: Fact. In a vacuum, it's probably a tie between these Heat and the Shaq/Kobe Lakers, but Miami has the advantage of playing at a later stage of the sport's evolution. Had those Lakers had the benefit of another decade of progress, they could have been just as good or better.
Wallace: Fiction. Find me a weakness on those Shaq-Kobe Lakers teams that won three straight titles at the turn of the century. Those teams had size, depth, quality role players, clutch 3-point shooting and were topped off by two players who were the best at their respective positions in the league. It would have been fun to see LeBron and Dwyane Wade get a crack at those Lakers. It'd be a basketball sin to overlook them.
5. Fact or Fiction: Miami wins Game 5.
Haberstroh: Fiction. This one's coming back to Miami. The Heat probably can't get away with the Rashard Lewis-David West matchup for long and I don't see Roy Hibbert going oh-fer again in Game 5. Throw in the historical home-court advantage with the officiating and I see the Pacers clipping the Heat just once more.
Nowell: Fact. They're too close to getting some needed rest, while the Thunder and Spurs are engaged in a slugfest. The Heat seem to have figured out Indy just enough that they're clearly the superior team, so I expect them to ratchet up the defensive intensity as they did in Game 4 to close this out.
Strauss: Fiction. Don't the Pacers tend to zig when we zag? They convince us they've fallen apart right before righting themselves, only to stumble again. It wouldn't shock me if the Pacers won in a blowout, only to lose the next game in a blowout.
Wade: Fiction. Or fact. It's the Pacers, after all. Nobody knows.
Wallace: Fiction. The one thing these Pacers have proved to be this postseason is consistently inconsistent. Just when you're ready to write them off, they resist and show signs of life. Just when you think they're about to meet expectations, they fool you again. Driven by that $25,000 fine and all of the excuses they made after losing Game 4, George and the Pacers have one final act of defiance left in them.