Indiana and South Florida do not have all that much in common. Indiana became the 19th state in the union on December 11, 1816. Except for a tiny portion in the northwest corner of the state, Indiana is land-locked. Fields of corn, soybeans and wheat surround the roads. Most people who live on the coasts haven’t spent a lot of time in Indiana. My family trips to West Virginia were about as close to Indiana as I’ve ever been for an actual stay. During the 1998 summer baseball trip around the country with my older brother, we managed to work our way through the northern part of the state in the wee hours of the morning after leaving Jacobs Field in Cleveland around 11pm and and heading toward Wrigley in Chicago for a matinee the following day. To those who grew up around Boston, Indiana means Larry Bird, and the town of French Lick, with its 1,807 residents. French Lick is closer to Louisville than it is to Indianapolis. Sports fans around the country think of the Indianapolis 500 and of the RCA Dome, where Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison became a weekly highlight-reel (563 receptions between 1999-2003). Indiana has loved its basketball for decades. The film Hoosiers captures the spirit and the tradition of Indiana basketball. High school basketball is a way of life in Indiana. Small towns filling up high school gymnasiums on Friday nights.
Market Square to Way Down There
Now we move from Tom Petty’s visions of Market Square in Indianapolis. Side note: I either played or heard my brother playing Tom Petty’s Greatest Hits CD about 938 times in 8th, 9th and 10th grade. I also heard Tom Petty songs daily when they were played to death on Boston’s classic rock radio station. (Thanks, BMG music service, or was it Columbia House for those countless “CD’s of the Month,” when I forgot to check “No, I DON”T want a Hootie & the Blowfish album!”
In the mid-1980’s, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine’s “Conga” took the country by tropical thunderstorm (check that choreography!) Side note: I had a cassette of Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine’s Let it Loose as a 4th-grader. The rhythm was indeed, going to get me.
Like the Midwest, South Florida feels like its own distinct country. Miami is a paradise to many, a freak-show to others, and a mixed-up jumble of great food, filled beaches, and luxury mixed with diversity, but also saddled with poverty, violence, a disaster of a school system, and drugs flowing steadily in and out of the country through the port. When LeBron James claimed he was “taking his talents to South Beach,” he certainly didn’t mention anything about stopping in the northern sections of the city, where the North Miami drug wars have been getting more violent by the week. Miami appears to be a tropical paradise, but Dexter is needed more often than not. To cast a violent shadow over America’s southernmost city without praising its cultural vibrancy and its artistic merits would be short-sighted. The point, though, is that Miami is equal parts South Beach and dangerous streets.
On to the Pacers-Heat…
“Who are these Pacers?” you might be asking. The team that David Stern and the sales and marketing division of the NBA has come to hate. Instead of New York, Boston, or Chicago, the Pacers have climbed the ladder and will put Indianapolis on the map for a few weeks this May.
Paul George is either 6’8″ as listed in his nba.com player profile, or now a fully-grown 6’10” (Indianapolis Star report from Dec 15, 2011). Either way, he is this generation’s Scottie Pippen. A superior wing-defender, with rebounding and play-making abilities, George is the ideal complementary star, though not yet ideal team leader because of his shooting, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are the best and most versatile small-forwards playing defense in the NBA today. I have adored Paul George’s game since some point last year, and it’s been awesome to see him flourish (at times) offensively this season. The winner of this year’s NBA “Most Improved Player” Award, George still has weaknesses. His up-and-down shooting is a problem at times for the Pacers, in part because of their lack of offensive arsenal off the bench. That is, unless D.J. Augustin decides he’s going to warm up for a sustained stretch.
Roy Hibbert is the best shot-blocker in the NBA today and when Hibbert can contribute a few post-moves and score from the block, the Pacers win. Evidence: In the Pacers 8 playoff wins, Hibbert is averaging 16.4 points, shooting 50% (6.2-12.4). In the Pacers 4 playoff losses, Hibbert is averaging 9.2 points on 45% (3.8-8.1). If Hibbert manages to stay out of foul trouble, by raising his arms completely vertical in his shot attempts, he stays on the court, gets a few big buckets in the paint, and makes the Pacers a dominant team. When Hibbert is forced to the bench, Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill have to figure out a way to create their own shots, which can be a problem against defenses that rotate well (read: Miami).
If you missed the Pacers-Knicks series, this clip is all you need to know to understand Hibbert’s impact:
Lance Stephenson, who has been Larry Bird’s focus since the day he was drafted 40th overall in 2010, has arrived. Jonathan Abrams’ excellent Grantland piece details Stephenson’s early success and the potentially-negative long-term impact of becoming a high-school legend, as a teenager in Brooklyn. Though Stephenson became New York City’s all-time leading scorer in high school basketball history, his year at the University of Cincinnati showed a lack of composure and maturity issues dropped him to 40th overall in the draft. Stephenson’s rebounding, combined with his ability to absorb contact (even Iman Shumpert and the bulky Raymond Felton couldn’t derail Stephenson’s penetration) and his intelligent shot-selection make him the ideal role player. In Indiana’s series-clinching win against the Knicks, Stephenson was crucial, acting as Indiana’s 4th quarter savior. In Game 6, he contributed 25 points on only 13 shot attempts, in addition to 10 rebounds.
George Hill has been playing basketball in Indiana since he was a toddler. He played high school ball in Indianapolis and college hoops at IUPUI (the school with the longest acronym also known as Indiana-Purdue at Indy). Hill was forced to leave the state after the Spurs drafted him, but was welcomed home in the Kawhi-Hill trade (to think the Pacers could have Kawhi and Paul George!, but they’d be without a smart, occasionally big-shot-hitting PG). Hill was concussed in Game 4, when he ran into the brick wall that is Tyson Chandler. After missing game 5, Hill was a game-time decision (he had to pass the concussion clearance tests) and ended up playing, but struggling mightily with his shot in Game 6. Frank Vogel is hoping the days off do Hill some good and he is able to “clear the cobwebs,” as they say. Hill’s concussion is a reminder that brain injuries are not solely reserved for football and hockey, though the vast majority are.
If Everything Goes Right…. the Pacers Can Win
Though the Miami praise is running rampant through the sports media world, in part because Bill Simmons happened to attend Game 6 of the Boston-Miami Eastern Conference Finals last year and in part because the Miami Heat absolutely dominated the regular season, and in part because LeBron James had a historically, almost comically-good season, Miami was essentially handed the NBA Finals trophy sometime in early April. Though I understand the chorus of “27-game winning streak!” “LeBron is the greatest athlete in inter-planetary history!” “66 wins!” I’m exhausted by it, and as a Celtics fan, I cringe when I hear it.
So…here’s my best-case scenario for this upcoming Pacers-Heat series:
1. Paul George hast to take care of the ball against perhaps the best perimeter defense in the NBA. George needs help from the other George, Mr. Hill. When the Pacers lose, George’s turnover totals are 4, 5, 4 and 7. George Hill needs to stay on the court and provide some ball-handling relief from the intense pressure of Miami. When the Pacers turn it over, Miami’s fast break will annihilate them. For Indiana to have a shot, they have to keep the pace down. (Fans of entertainment may be saddened by this, but fans of basketball will have fun watching Hibbert operate).
2. Roy Hibbert does not get called for fouls at the rim, because he raises his gargantuan arms straight up in the air, keeping dunks from happening on the majority of those LeBron/Wade drives.
3. Roy Hibbert continues to amass an insane amount of offensive rebounds (32 in 6 games vs. NYK, 23 in 6 games vs. ATL)
4. George Hill feels better and hits his three-pointers. In the three games Indiana has lost with Hill this post-season, he has shot 2 of 14 from distance. In the eight wins, he’s connected on 19 of 54. You might say, “19 of 54! That’s only 35%!” You’d be right, but Indiana needs balanced shot distribution to keep from Spoelstra tilting his defense completely onto Paul George and Hibbert. Also, of those 35 missed three-pointers, I bet Roy Hibbert grabbed 8 offensive rebounds.
5. Lance Stephenson gives Indiana a jolt of adrenaline at all the right moments. If there is a weakness to Miami, its still their bench and how they play with Chris Bosh off the court. Though Chris Anderson has been solid through the first two rounds, the penetration of George and Stephenson have to get Bosh into foul trouble, in order for Indiana to control these games.
6. We can’t forget David West. The consummate professional, West has a consistent 18-foot jumper and rugged, physical play that will wear down his opponent. If the Pacers can get West some open looks, he will be a factor in this series. David West lets the game come to him, which means he is the perfect role player on this very balanced Pacers team. Don’t nap on West.
7. Dwyane Wade’s knee is not right. I don’t mean his left knee, or his right knee. I’m not sure which knee. One of them is wrong, and that may put an insane amount of pressure on LeBron.
8. LeBron has already dealt with the semi-abusive defense of the Chicago Bulls for the last two weeks. I don’t think LeBron wants to have to put the whole team on his shoulders against Indiana’s excellent defense. And I know LeBron doesn’t want to meet Roy Hibbert at the rim.
9. Norris Cole must miss more than 20% of his shots from distance. Against Chicago, Cole shot 9 of 11, that’s right 9 of 11, from long-range. This cannot happen if the Pacers are going to win 4 times in 7 games. In two pivotal games (Game 2 and Game 3) Cole combined to shoot 13 of 16 from the field, scoring 18 points in each game. 36 points on 16 shots in two games? That was one of the biggest reasons Miami survived Games 2 and 3. Meanwhile, the ghost of Ray Allen went 4 of 17 from distance against Chicago.
10. Erik Spoelstra must have a huge time-out argument with Dwayne Wade again. In last May’s East Semifinals Game 3, this happened:
Darko Index (finally) Predicts: Miami in 7. (65% chance)
Darko Index Hopes: Indiana in 6. (35% chance).
Jonah Hall writes The Darko Index so that he can try and convince himself that the dreaded Miami Heat won’t win another championship this year. Contact Jonah at firstname.lastname@example.org. Throw a few coins into the tip jar if you thoroughly enjoyed this. If you found yourself laughing, tell Jonah. He likes to know when people are laughing. At all times. Anywhere in the world.
Because this made me laugh, I’m including it:
If you do a Wikipedia search for “Paul George,” you’ll find this:
Paul George may refer to: