Big game tonight in Indiana and Miami, but the association blessed us with a decent night of basketball. The two games that stand out to me are Sacramento vs. Atlanta and Portland vs. Minnesota. The Kings are in their honeymoon phase with Rudy Gay, and so far, Gay has averaged 20 points per game, while shooting 50 percent in two of his last three games, and hey, Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins are co-existing on offense. So far, so good. As for the Hawks, Jeff Teague running the offense, Al Horford continuing to succeed in being underrated, Kyle Korver continuing his beautiful three-point shooting streak, and Paul “Trillsap” Millsap being, well, Trillsap. Two interesting teams (one good) should always create fun basketball.
As for Portland and Minnesota, The Timberwolves are in the midst of a slump, going 4-6 in their last 10 games. Kevin Martin went from ineffective, to out with an injury, and the team has struggled defensively as well, allowing 108.9 points per game in their last ten. Still, the Timberwolves found themselves playing 5 potential playoff teams (Indiana, Denver, Dallas, Miami, San Antonio), and with an easier schedule should come some wins. As for Portland, the Blazers are 22-4, LaMarcus Aldridge is a MVP candidate, and their offense is incredible. Should be a fun matchup of power forwards and for Minnesota, a good game to win to build some momentum moving forward.
Ultimately, however, the Game of the Night goes to the Indiana Pacers against the Miami Heat. Barring injury, these are the two teams that will represent the East in the Eastern Conference Finals. Unlike many, I just don’t really care how these two teams play in the regular season; the Pacers have shown the ability to win games from the Heat in 2012 and 2013 in the playoffs, and came one bounce away from getting to the Eastern Conference Finals. Progression from George should make those games even closer in my mind. These games do have value, but the only thing I can sense from these games are that I believe, moving forward, the drubbing the Heat offered the Pacers in last year’s game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals isn’t happening anymore. I think Indiana has improved enough to where, every game will be a good, close contest. Maybe, Miami can show me different tonight, but I doubt it.
Let’s start with the 20-4 Indiana Pacers. The Pacers are the best defensive team in the league with a 94.2 defensive rating. The offense has taken a small step forward from 19th to 15th this season, and Paul George (23.8 points, 5.8 rebounds) is the main catalyst for it. Roy Hibbert (12.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 3.0 blocks) is continuing to give Indiana excellent rim protection, and Lance Stephenson (12.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists) has become semi-reliable as a scorer and ball-handler in Indiana’s offense. The lineup of Hill, Stephenson, George, West, and Hibbert has a net rating of 14.1 this season, and the additions of C.J. Watson and Luis Scola has given Indiana some bench options on their bench. It’s easier to state that Indiana is a better team than last season, but they can only continue to prove that by beating Miami and the top Western Conference teams.
Looking at the Miami Heat, the Heat sit at 18-6, while ranking 2nd in offensive efficiency and 6th in defensive efficiency. Dwyane Wade is playing almost every other night, Chris Bosh (14.6 points, 6.1 rebonds) is chugging along in his third, sometimes second option role, and oh yeah, LeBron James (25.3 points, 6.5 assists, 6.8 rebounds, 59.8% FG) is on his way to winning another MVP. Not to be outdone, Miami’s lineup of Chalmers,Wade, James, Battier, and Bosh own a net rating of 8.6, but in a lineup where Miami substitutes Wade for Ray Allen, the Heat, in a small sample size, have a net rating of 14.5. The trouble has to come from LeBron’s back and recent ankle injury, and sitting him will be in the cards if the injuries persist, but the Heat, for the most part, are on the right track, with the goal of being healthy in April, May, and hopefully June.
The Pick: I’m going with Indiana. First, LeBron is dealing with that ankle injury, and I wouldn’t be too shocked if he sat out. Second, the Pacers take these games personal. They want (and probably should) these games as statement games, to show that they aren’t afraid of matching up with Miami, and in fact, they’re the superior team. With that, combined with Miami’s tepid attitude towards the regular season, the Pacers should leave South Beach on Thursday with a win. Pacers 104, Heat 99.
Time: 7:00 PM EST
National TV: ESPN
Local TV: FSMW (Indiana) | Sun (Miami)
*All stats from NBA.com’s Media Site*