Tonight, the two best teams in the Eastern Conference will square off in Indiana, as the Pacers host the Miami Heat in what could be a precursor to the East Conference Championship. The two have played twice this season, each winning the game played on their home court. The last time they faced one another was December 18 in Miami. The Pacers led for most of that game and looked to take a 2-0 season series lead. They were up by seven points with 3:21 left in the game when Miami went on one of their patented 12-2 runs in the final minutes, and stole the victory. Now the Pacers hope to take the series lead tonight when they host the Heat. Both teams have been far and away the best in the Eastern Conference through the end of February, but both have also struggled in the month of March. They are both 5-7 in their last 12 games, but have been losing for different reasons. The Pacers have had offensive woes, not scored more than 80 points in their last three games. Miami has had defensive woes, giving up 95 or more points in all seven of their losses. Tonight, the Miami Heat will look to reclaim their spot on top when they square off with an Indian Pacers team looking to prove they’re the new beasts of the east, and move one game closer to a number one seed.
Last year’s Eastern Conference Championship series was one of the better in league history. The Heat and Pacers went through a grueling seven-game series that the Heat ended up winning. One of the main reasons the Pacers were able to push the Heat was their center, Roy Hibbert. Hibbert, in last years championship series, averaged 22 points and over 10 rebounds a game. The Heat didn’t have the size to compete with the seven-foot, two-inch center and he had his way. This past offseason, the Heat signed their own seven-footer in Greg Oden. Oden was highly touted when he came into the league, but has been plagued by injuries since entering. The Heat have used him sparingly this season, only seeing action in 21 games and starting five times. Monday night against the Portland Trailblazers Oden contributed some of his first meaningful minutes as he scored four points and grabbed three rebounds in 15 minutes of play. It was not earth shattering, but it was the first game he started to look like his old self. The Heat hope he continues his upward trend tonight as they will play him against Roy Hibbert and hope to slow the big man down. Hibbert always poses trouble for teams, but he has been in funk of late; he has more fouls than points in his last two games. Still, the game tonight should have a playoff-like atmosphere, bringing out the best in the players, and Hibbert has a knack for these situations. It will be a big test for Oden, considering this is the first time he’s been asked to do something this big and Hibbert will be trying to get back on track. Heat coach, Eric Spoelstra, said he cancelled a vacation last year to travel to the NBA summer league and meet with Oden, that is how strongly the team felt about acquiring him. Tonight, the Heat will look to unleash Oden for the first time this season and find out if they made the right decision.
Dwyane Wade has missed the last two games for the Miami Heat due to a sore Achilles tendon and left knee problems that have hurt the All-Star player the past few years. Miami expects him to be in the line-up tonight. Wade was able to practice in full on Tuesday before the team flew to Indiana, and baring any setbacks in pre-game warm ups, he is expected to play. That is a welcome sign for the Heat, who have been without Wade for 19 games this season. As part of their ‘Big-Three’ Miami is most dangerous when they are all on the court and healthy. Wade has played in 50 games this season and has averaged over 19 points, almost five assists and 4.6 rebounds per game. Both Chris Bosh and LeBron James acknowledged they are looking to having him back. The last time these two teams played, Wade scored a game high 32 points. The Miami Heat hope Wade can be a factor tonight in the beasts of the east battle, as James will square off with Indiana Pacer, Paul George, and Bosh will have his hands full with David West.
Heading into the game the Pacers will have to develop a short-term memory as they are coming off of a tough, defensive loss, to the Chicago Bulls. In his last five games, Paul George has been shooting less than 28 percent. He is the Pacer’s best scorer and will have to turn things around in a hurry if they want to beat the Heat tonight. The Heat are only 11-10 on the road this season and the Pacers have won the last three meetings in Indiana between the two. Miami will be entering the game with a bit of momentum after defeating the Portland Trailblazers on Monday night, off of James’ last minute, go-ahead score, and Bosh making a game-winning block. After a difficult month of March the Heat began to get frustrated with one another. Bosh called the team out after a Saturday loss to New Orleans, saying they are not playing with any passion. James was not happy either and became determined to turn things around. He was shooting on the court with less than an hour to go before the Heat’s game on Monday, alone, and yelling at himself when he missed shots. Eric Spoelstra wanted James to be himself, turn things around and get aggressive. James shot the ball 12 times in that first quarter, the most in his career and led Miami to a win. After the Heat’s emotional win James said, you have to back up what you say. If the Heat continue to back up what they say, and James stays aggressive, it could be a long night tonight for Indiana.
The Pacers hold a two game lead over the Heat, but are only one game up in the loss column. The two teams will play once more this season on April 11th in Miami. A win tonight would put the Heat’s chances of securing the number one seed in their own hands. The teams would be tied in the loss column and that April 11 matchup in Miami could decide who finishes number one and who finishes number two. The Heat, like Doc Rivers’s Celtics and the San Antonio Spurs, usually play slower in the first half of the season and turn it up as it gets closer to the playoffs, leaving their best basketball for the Spring. The Indian Pacers do not do that. They have been on a mission all season to secure the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, feeling that could be the difference of playing in the NBA Championship and losing again to the Heat in the Eastern Conference. They have played great the first two-thirds of the season, but their recent slump has brought them back to earth. If the Pacers lose tonight, and ultimately end up as the number two seed, they may be looking back to this game as a big reason why. For the Miami Heat, they have been the beasts of the east and only want to make the playoffs, while the Indiana Pacers have been determined all season to show there is a new beast on the block and will look to prove that tonight as the two teams square off in Indiana.
Commentary by Chris Dragicevich