For months, the NBA cognoscenti have been ready and able to chalk the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers straight into the Eastern Conference Finals.
Too bad neither team seems willing to cooperate.
Both lost again Saturday night—the Heat to the New Orleans Pelicans 105-95 and the Pacers to the Memphis Grizzlies 82-71—casting further doubt on how prepared the East’s two lone juggernauts are for their march into spring.
LeBron James and Chris Bosh are particularly ill at ease with their team’s lackluster play of late:
And rightly so: The Heat are 4-6 in their last 10 games, a stretch that’s included losses to the Denver Nuggets (at home), Boston Celtics and Pelicans.
How bad have the Heat been since the All-Star break? Worse than a team with a combined 28 wins over the previous two seasons:
Even for a team so accustomed to accusations of “turning it on” only when the chips are down, Miami’s malaise has been particularly pointed out over the past few weeks.
Indiana, despite holding fast to its three-game cushion atop the conference standings, hasn’t fared much better.
But whereas Miami’s is a crisis of commitment, the Pacers are being confronted with the consequences of coach Frank Vogel’s almost unparalleled reliance on his starting unit—especially fourth-year All-Star forward Paul George.
Per Pro Basketball Talk’s Brett Pellakoff (from earlier Saturday):
Over his last three games, George is shooting 11-of-44 from the field — 25 percent. And over his last four, he’s gone just 6-of-27 from beyond the arc — 22.2 percent. Vogel may be right in wanting to stick with his star, and he might not have any other choice.
But George’s numbers over his last four games would appear to indicate that something is going on, and it may just be simply that fatigue has set in more than usual during this recent stretch.
Vogel’s next most oft-used lineup: 185 minutes.
Having boasted a 12.3 net rating (the combination of a team’s offensive- and defensive-efficiency ratings), Indiana’s starting unit is one of the most formidable in the league—and the biggest reason why the Pacers sprinted to a 20-3 record to start the season.
Per CBS’ Ken Berger, Vogel has been ambiguous in how he plans to approach managing his team’s minutes down the stretch.
Given how hard the Heat have swooned, however, it might well behoove Indy to consider giving its steadfast steeds a few nights off, specifically against the likes of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons or Milwaukee Bucks, any of which might well be shorthanded—even if purposefully so.
What a difference an All-Star break makes: Before February 18, the Heat and Pacers were the league’s best offensive and defensive teams, respectively (in terms of overall efficiency). Since then, Miami has dropped to fifth in offense, while Indy has fallen to sixth in defense.
But while the Heat and Pacers search for answers—consumed with the fortunes and trajectory of one another—the oft-dismissed lower seeds in the East have found their winning formulas at precisely the right time.
Take the Brooklyn Nets: winners of 10 of their last 12 games (including a 96-95 victory over Miami) and 11 in a row at home, with roster depth for days and a pair of legendary veterans—Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett—who’d love nothing more than to crash the conference party one more time.
Meanwhile, the Bulls, led by All-Star center and nightly triple-double threat Joakim Noah, have won 14 of their last 20, asserting themselves as legitimate second-round threats to whoever winds up with the top seed. That's to say nothing of the treatment they'd give current No. 5 seed Brooklyn, whom the Bulls bested in seven games in last year's playoffs.
Even the New York Knicks—still three games out but suddenly surging—could potentially pose big-time problems for whoever ends up reeling in the No. 1 seed, having notched impressive wins against both of their top-fold foes.
The Eastern Conference is nowhere near as potent, top to bottom, as its Western brethren.
By the same token, the playoff cream rises for a reason, so even if the Heat and Pacers survive the slings and arrows of the first two rounds, the extent to which they punish one another in the conference finals will only make the eventual winner that much more weary for the war that lies in wait.
If they can't even manage to best the West's middling teams, as neither Indy nor Miami were able to Saturday night, how do we expect them to fare against the Oklahoma City Thunder or San Antonio Spurs?
Make no mistake: Miami and Indiana remain the prohibitive favorites to rejoin their epic seven-game conference-finals battle from a season ago—internal challenges and chinks in the armor aside.
But don’t discount the possibility that, because they’ve spent so much time and energy worrying about one another, there might be little left in the tank if and when their sequel begins.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of March 22, unless otherwise noted. Many NBA.com stats are subscription-based.