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Thursday, May 10, 2012
What's the selling point with Indiana?

By Israel Gutierrez
ESPN.com

Lebron James
Can Roy Hibbert and the Pacers slow down LeBron James and the Heat?

MIAMI -- Hyping the Heat-Knicks first-round series?

That was about as easy as selling a televised singing competition.

All you had to do was mention any combination of the words Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire, Madison Square Garden or "playoff rivalry" and there was bound to be a sexy element to get the anticipatory juices flowing.

It wasn't a warm-up series for Miami. It was the glam series of the first round, even if it didn't have potential for lasting particularly long.

There was as much interest in LeBron defending Carmelo as there was in the actual outcome of each game. As much enthusiasm from Heat players about playing in the Garden as there was ending the series there.

That stimulating, if not always competitive, series is over, ending as many predicted, with the Heat disposing of New York in five games.

Now comes the harder part.

Playing Indiana should be slightly more difficult than facing the Knicks, sure.

But the more problematic component just might be selling the idea that this Heat-Pacers series is anywhere near as compelling as the postseason opener was.

After Wednesday's clincher, the Heat had every chance to market this thing as a sneaky-exciting series.

James was asked what he expects in the upcoming series, given the problems the Pacers gave the Heat in the regular season.

LeBron, frankly, was stumped by the question.

"I don't think they've given us too many problems, personally," he said after a thoughtful pause. "We've played some great ball against them. I think we've given more problems than they've given us."

He was just being honest, of course. The Heat were 3-1 against Indiana in the regular season, with the loss coming during Miami's worst stretch of the season, a 5-6 spell that started in late March.

In fact, the most memorable moment of any Heat-Pacers matchup in the Big Three era was Wade's one-armed, full-court, pinpoint alley-oop pass to James last season.

Not exactly conjuring up images of a budding rivalry.

How about a playoff history? There's nothing like reflections of nasty postseason clashes between franchises to serve as table-setters.

Remember much from that six-game 2004 Heat-Pacers series, Dwyane?

"Obviously, one of my favorite all-time series because it was one of my first ones," Wade said. "I think that's when I made a little name for myself, in that series."

That's hardly P.J. Brown flipping Charlie Ward into a row of photographers. Fond memories of playoffs past don't make for high-quality drama.

Leave it to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra to come up with a hook -- even if it really isn't that convincing.

"It's a team that's playing at an extreme high confidence level right now," Spoelstra said of the Pacers. "This next series I'm sure will feel like it's played in a cage rather than a basketball court. It will be extremely physical."

Whoa now, Spo.

Let's not confuse the Pacers with the Chicago Bulls any time soon.

This group is big with 7-foot-3 Roy Hibbert manning the paint, and it does have some length, athleticism and a Psycho T.

But physical isn't the first place you go when thinking of Indiana.

This team averaged nearly 103 points in the regular-season portion of April. And after that 77-point stinker in their playoff opener against Orlando, the Pacers played more like their usual selves, finishing with back-to-back triple-digit efforts.

That reads more like a finesse, high-scoring team than one that wants to muddle the game with hard fouls and brute force.

So maybe the way to ignite the Heat's second-round senses is by pointing out just how unprepared they are for the Pacers.

Not that they aren't capable of shifting gears, but playing the Melo-dominated Knicks did nearly nothing to groom the Heat for the Pacers.

New York relied so much on Anthony for offense, and the Heat knew that limiting Carmelo was priority No. 1. That actually played into the Heat's hands, because Miami has the most versatile defender in the league in James, with an active and annoying defense around him to create added confusion.

Where the Heat get into trouble more often is against teams that move the ball liberally, taking advantage of the help Miami offers and the occasional gambling mentality of Wade and James.

The Knicks, with Anthony and J.R. Smith dominating the ball so regularly, had so little ball movement that the league's best 3-point shooter, Steve Novak, was a nonfactor.

That didn't help Miami prep for a Pacers unit that has to move the ball to score.

The Heat essentially are going from defending the Eastern Conference's best go-to scorer to defending a team that doesn't have a standout go-to presence.

In any given game, it could be David West, Danny Granger, Paul George or even George Hill or Darren Collison if they've got the hot hand.

"Everybody's live, obviously," said Udonis Haslem, who spent most of the Knicks series defending a frustrated Stoudemire. "You can't relax defensively and think that just because your man doesn't have the ball that you're out of the play. You have to know that it'll probably be swing, swing, drive."

The Pacers also have more committed defenders than the Knicks, more length on the wings and significantly bigger threats at the point guard spot, which isn't saying much given that injuries forced New York into playing a combo of Mike Bibby and Toney Douglas at that position in Game 5.

But even playing the "totally different animal" card didn't seem to generate much enthusiasm from the Heat.

At least not from James, who's probably thrilled just to be past the task of defending Anthony, who averaged 32 over the last four games of the first round.

"It won't be hard at all," James said of the transition to defending a more team-oriented offense. "It's something that we know we're going to have to face at some point in the postseason."

Finding ways to promote an Eastern Conference semifinals might sound like a fan-related issue and not a realistic concern for anyone actually participating. But boredom has been a regular problem for this Heat team since the Super Friends came together.

Complacency clearly set in at certain segments this season. And the Heat have lost plenty of large leads by shifting into cruise control over the past two years -- none more devastating than the Game 2 home loss in last season's Finals that saw Dallas recover from a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit.

With that in mind, Spoelstra was happy to see the Knicks in the first round, because it meant there'd be no fear of such smugness setting in.

"When we returned from that Washington trip [at the end of regular season] and had a 24-hour turnaround, we knew that, 'Hey, we better be on top of our game," Spoelstra said. "We better not only compete and play at an incredible effort and force level, but we better play well because [New York] is one of the hottest teams in the league."

The Pacers don't offer that same allure.

So unlike last season for Miami, when the Eastern Conference playoffs were an escalating series of challenges from Philadelphia to Boston to Chicago, these playoffs don't appear to be following that same arc.

The second round will be a test of enthusiasm and desire as much as endurance and defense.

"Miami-Indiana, from the outside, when it comes to hype, won't be the same," Wade said. "I think us as a team knows that this [Indiana] team here is a better team [than New York]. They proved it all year, so it's going to be a tougher series for us.

"But it won't be grabbing headlines like the Knicks-Miami series."

As long as the Pacers grab the Heat's attention, it'll be all that truly matters for Miami.