Paul George shooting over Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. (Credit)
As a New York Knicks fan and a basketball fan, I’m constantly haunted by the 2009 Western Conference Finals. If you don’t remember, that’s the series where Denver nearly stole Game 1 in Los Angeles and then actually won Game 2, leaving everyone involved thinking “holy crap, Carmelo Anthony is making the leap.”
There’s no greater joy for a basketball fan than watching a player make the leap right before your eyes. It’s just so gratifying to watch a player figure it all out and become the player they were always meant to be. It’s the bizarro version of what we saw with LeBron James last summer in that we actually want to see it. For two games in Los Angeles that spring, it looked like it was going to happen for Carmelo.
But, it didn’t. Those two games were a mirage as Kobe Bryant completely took over the series. The Lakers won in six, but I had to reevaluate why the Nuggets were able to keep it so close against them. It wasn’t Carmelo. If he truly had made the leap, the Nuggets would have won. Why? Because the Nuggets were a better team. And you’ll never convince me otherwise.
If Kobe hadn’t put on his MJ cape before Game 3, they would have won the series. Chauncey Billups abused Derek Fisher, the Nene-Kenyon Martin combo bullied the softer Lakers duo of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum — so much that I’m pretty sure Gasol spent timeouts calling his mommy — and even if he wasn’t quite what we thought he was, Carmelo was pretty darn good.
Why am I bringing all of this up? Because we’re watching the exact same series between the Pacers and Heat right now.
Throw out the 66-win season, the 27-game winning streak and the three stars. Right now, the Pacers are just better than the Heat. Now I don’t know if this is because of rust, matchups, karma, voodoo or whatever, but the only conclusion I’ve taken from this series so far is that Indiana is better than Miami. It’s that simple.
The one main difference from that 2009 series? Paul George is actually making the leap. Only, he’s not turning into the best possible version of Carmelo Anthony. He’s (gulp) turning into (I can’t believe I’m saying this) a worse version of LeBron.
He’s a matchup nightmare, a two-way force who, by my estimation, is a top-10 player in the league right now. He can defend any non-center in the league at a very high level and score with any non-center in the league defending him. The only thing LeBron has that he doesn’t is the passing, but that's ok. He’s not LeBron; he’s Paul George.
So, where does that leave Miami? It’s very simple. Last year in Boston, LeBron put on his MJ cape and led the Heat to a win they probably didn’t deserve. The Celtics were better than the Heat last spring for the first five games of that series, but LeBron was so good that it didn’t matter.
If this incarnation of the Miami Heat is going to beat the younger, hungrier and better Indiana Pacers, it is going to have to be through LeBron. And that doesn’t mean normal, amazing, 27-8-7 LeBron. That means superhuman, 35-10-8 LeBron. That means performances like last year’s legendary Game 6 in Boston.
If he doesn’t, the Pacers are going to win this series and we’re going to be left wondering, once again, just how good LeBron really is. Ironically enough, this is kind of his own fault. He’s been so consistently amazing that his teammates have grown to rely on him to a point where it’s detrimental.
Dwyane Wade feels like he can play at 60% because LeBron has his back. Chris Bosh is fine with grabbing only seven boards per game as a small ball center and only taking jump shots because, with LeBron on the floor, he doesn’t have much else to do. That’s just not going to work against the Pacers.
Lance Stephenson is going to take out Wade and Indiana’s frontline is going to pull a play out of KG’s playbook and beat the crap out of Bosh whenever possible. Normally, Miami can win with Wade and Bosh playing like this because LeBron is so good, but with them stuck in this gear, he’s going to have to be even better against Indiana.
This is not like last year’s Pacers or the Bulls from Miami's last round. This isn’t some cute story to throw around as we await Miami’s coronation. To Miami, the Pacers are a very real, very immediate threat. They are one bad coaching move (taking out Hibbert on the final possession) away from being down 2-0 heading to Indiana.
Despite their lack of star power and their small-market background, the Pacers are a better basketball team than the Heat right now. If LeBron doesn’t turn the tide, and soon, he is going to lose, and Miami’s legendary regular season will have meant nothing.
By: Sam Quinn