Everyone from Indianapolis to Miami to Milan can name the pivotal player for the Miami Heat as they open the NBA Eastern Conference Finals tonight. For the Indiana Pacers, the answer's not so easy.
Miami revolves around the best player in the game, LeBron James. Yes, Dwyane Wade, when healthy, is a crucial cog as a scorer and leader, as is Chris Bosh. But James is the man. Add some uppercase: James is The Man.
Who is the most important player for the Pacers? There isn't one.
If you look to stats, you might be inclined to name Paul George. He's the team's leading scorer (19.1 per game in 12 playoff games), leading assist man (5.0) and second in rebounding (8.3). Throw in the fact he'll likely guard James and it's clear the Pacers must have a great series from George if they are to pull the upset.
But the Pacers have not reached this point – hours from Wednesday's 8:30 p.m. opener in Miami – because of one player.
The fact the Pacers don't have a “most” important player is their biggest strength.
The Pacers will need every one of their parts to flourish if they are going to steal a game in Miami and upset the Heat in a seven-game series.
Pacers forward David West calls this Pacers team the “most together group” he has been a part of in his decade as an NBA player. The starting lineup of George, West, center Roy Hibbert, guard Lance Stephenson and point guard George Hill offers a wealth of diverse talent. Their chemistry lifts them to another level.
“George, Paul, Roy, Lance – everybody brings something,” West said. “We don't talk about it. We practice it. We have constant communication, and it's been that way all year.”
There are no overblown egos in the Pacers' locker room, West said.
“We have a lot of positive vibes, positive energy pulling for each other,” George said.
George, Hibbert, West and Hill played major roles in the Pacers' playoff run last season, when they went up 2-1 on the Heat in their second-round series, but ended up losing control of the series. Stephenson was on the team, but played only a few minutes more than Boomer, the Pacers' mascot.
It was telling how the Pacers responded on two occasions against the New York Knicks in their second-round series last week.
First, they went up 2-1 in the series heading into a home game in Game 4, the identical situation to last season against the Heat. While they wilted vs. the Heat, the bloomed vs. the Knicks, seizing control of the series. Secondly, when the Pacers lost a 10-point second-half lead to the Knicks in Game 6, they delivered a defensive-driven run (cue the video of Hibbert blocking Carmelo Anthony's dunk) to take the game away from the Knicks.
The Pacers are physically and, more importantly, mentally tougher than they were a year ago.
“We're not satisfied with where we're at,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said.
It's essential that the Pacers again deliver the type of all-around team performance that's made them a dangerous postseason threat.
George is no longer an emerging superstar. He's the real deal. He's been so good at being the No.1 option, many fans haven't missed the injured Danny Granger. (I wonder where Granger fits next season, to be honest.) George has a few moments when he channels his inner Carmelo and forces a shot, but they are few. He's more likely to pass up a look than to force one.
Hibbert's presence in the inside gives the Pacers something for the Heat to worry about, too. He's a shot blocker and he'll meet anyone at the rim to non-verbally debate who owns it. The Heat can gain an edge if they force him into foul trouble, but Hibbert seems to be getting better at avoiding that situation.
West looks like an enforcer. He's a grinder, doing his job, taking and dishing out elbows and working to control the boards. His short-range shot has been erratic during the playoffs, but when he's on, he's good for 17 or 18 points inside.
Hill's work at the point was highlighted when he missed Game 5 of the Knicks series with a concussion. D.J. Augustin is a quality backup point guard, but Hill's skills at setting the offense and disrupting the defense are essential to the Pacers.
Stephenson is a wild card, the rising game-changer who came up big at the start and finish of Game 6 vs. the Knicks. If he doesn't let the Heat get into his head – I can see some psychological games emerging – he can do some damage off the dribble. He plays with contagious intensity.
The Pacers bench is not as talented as the Heat's. There's no Ray Allen strolling onto the court. Augustin, Ian Mahinmi, Tyler Hansbrough and Sam Young understand their roles, which is to maintain play while starters get a breather and sometimes give a foul or two. Too much of those guys will mean the Heat has taken control.
It's tempting to label the Pacers as no-names in contrast with the Heat.
Yet it's that team-oriented identity that gives the Pacers their best chance at upending the conventional wisdom that has the Heat cruising on to the NBA Finals.