Game 4 preview: Heat vs. Pacers
A win in Game 3 put the Miami Heat just two victories away from another NBA Finals and Eastern Conference crown. Can the Pacers put up a fight again in Game 4? Our panel tackles all the need-to-know storylines heading into Monday's game (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).
1. Fact or Fiction: Lance Stephenson is doing more harm than good.
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: Fiction -- until he started poking the bear. As Steven Adams of Oklahoma City has proved time and time again this season, the most effective way to get under an opponent's skin is with your play on the court (with some added extracurricular physicality) and stone-cold silence. Stephenson had 50 percent of this down, until he called out LeBron James. This won't end well.
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN: Fiction. It's impossible to say how James will respond to the "sign of weakness" quote from Stephenson, but it's unlikely he will take it too personally given the importance of every game in this series. In the East finals, Stephenson is averaging 17.3 points, 6.7 assists and seven rebounds. That's plenty of good.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: Fiction. You have to consider the alternative. Evan Turner is a much less talented version of Stephenson, and Rasual Butler is, well, Rasual Butler. Stephenson has his warts, but even a volatile Stephenson is better than who would be checking in for him.
Jared Wade, Special to ESPN.com: Fiction. His Game 1 was sublime. He ran amok over the Heat for three quarters in Game 2. And he was the only starter who made a field goal or got a rebound in the second quarter of Game 3, which is when the Pacers started to fall apart. His inability to put up points the past two fourth quarters has been disappointing, but Stephenson has probably been Indiana's best player in the conference finals.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Fiction. This question made me smile because it cuts right to the heart of the Lance paradox. Playing with him is absolutely maddening for his teammates. He has poor vision for a guard. He steals rebounds from teammates, often for no reason. He takes chances at inappropriate times. Yet he constantly makes plays and is impervious to pressure. He can win playoff games, and that matters most.
2. Fact or Fiction: With this D-Wade, the Heat would be Finals favorites.
Elhassan: Fiction. Maybe I'm in a minority, but I thought this was the whole point of Miami's schedule management of Wade during the regular season. I always expected this Wade to appear in the playoffs. The Spurs are just operating at a much higher level.
Gutierrez: Fiction. Not if it's against a Spurs team with home-court advantage. The Heat can still beat San Antonio, especially having experienced the defensive strategy Gregg Popovich employed in last year's Finals, but if the Spurs get past the Thunder, they should still be favorites, even with Wade playing this well. Miami gets the nod if it's OKC.
Haberstroh: Fact. Wade is playing a smarter brand of basketball these days rather than trying to play like a crash-test dummy like he did in his early 20s. This Wade has developed his YMCA game. He is using the glass, floating the ball above the trees and even hitting those buzzer-beaters that we all love to practice at the local gym. Except he's way better at it.
Wade: Fact. He is shooting 62 percent from the floor in the series, including a ludicrous 23-for-37 outside the restricted area. That doesn't seem sustainable, but if he was able to keep it up for the rest of the playoffs, the Heat might have the two best players in any series -- even if Kevin Durant is on the other team.
Windhorst: Fact, with the caveat that you include "this Ray Allen," who is shooting 54 percent on 3-pointers in the series. This one-two combo of James and Wade is perhaps the best it's been all season, and it makes the Heat so much more difficult to defend and more resilient. They need more consistency from Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers, but not having home-court advantage won't bother them; they have won a road game in 15 straight playoff series.
3. Fact or Fiction: The Paul George backlash is excessive.
Elhassan: FACT! I'm reminded of the terrific Kareem Abdul-Jabbar quote from "Airplane," when the little boy relays his father's criticisms of Kareem, to which he angrily responds, "Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes." George is saddled with the daunting task of guarding LeBron every minute they are both on the court. Forgive him for not being able to carry the Pacers offense at the same time.
Gutierrez Fiction. I wouldn't even call it backlash. It's more of a re-evaluation of how to assess him. His decline after a great start to the regular season is being mirrored in the postseason; right now, he doesn't look like a player who can take over a game in this series. The criticism seems fair.
Haberstroh: Fact. The guy is coming off a brain injury. It's not like he missed 20 shots and coughed up the ball 10 times. You have to give credit to the Heat for making him work and forcing tough shots. Bad games happen, especially to a 24-year-old in the Eastern Conference finals coming off a knee to the head.
Wade: Fact. I guess. I honestly wasn't aware there was much backlash. He was brilliant in Game 1, had a rough Game 2 (then got a concussion) and sat out a lot of Game 3 with foul trouble. Yes, he needs to keep himself on the court, but it really was ticky tack stuff and he made some big plays in the fourth quarter (while scoring 11 points). Plus, George has been generally playing his normal top-shelf defense all series against the best player alive.
Windhorst: Fiction. George signed a max contract last summer, he was an All-Star starter, and he was discussed as an MVP candidate earlier this season. The high-level expectations and criticism comes along with all that stuff.
4. Fact or Fiction: Norris Cole > Mario Chalmers.
Elhassan: In this series, fact. Miami has benefited from Cole's dribble penetration, forcing Indiana's defense to react and contract, which creates passing lanes for open 3s. Combine that with Cole's superior on-ball defense and more accurate 3-point shooting in the postseason (46.4 percent to 39.4) and it's easy to see why he's been better.
Gutierrez: Fiction. Overall, at least. Chalmers has been pretty bad the past six games, and Cole has picked up his play immensely since a subpar Brooklyn series. But we don't have enough evidence to assume this is Cole from here on out.
Haberstroh: Fiction. In this series? Yes. Not in general. Chalmers is the far more reliable shooter, superior distributor and better penetrator. But defensively, Cole has been excellent taking care of Stephenson. The offensive end has been the real surprise. He is making smart decisions, and it no longer looks like he's driving with a glitchy GPS.
Wade: Fiction. Cole has played excellent defense on Stephenson, and his fearlessness going at Roy Hibbert led to some huge buckets late in Games 2 and 3. Cole may be the better option against the Pacers right now, but Chalmers has made too many big plays the past few postseasons for a few games to change the pecking order.
Windhorst: Fiction. Maybe in this series, but Cole had a very shaky second half of the season and is more limited as a player. Cole's teammates love him, though, and go out of their way to praise him. As for Mario? Not so much.
5. Fact or Fiction: The Heat cruise in Game 4.
Elhassan: Fiction. They will win, but it will be a closer affair. Indiana has shown it can compete and outplay Miami for stretches, but the Pacers are susceptible to big Heat runs.
Gutierrez Fiction. It's not just the Pacers that are inconsistent. The Heat haven't always handled series leads especially well. If Miami allows Indiana to dictate the style of play, this Game 4 could very much resemble Game 2. Remember, it wasn't until Game 7 of last year's East finals that the Heat cruised in a home game.
Haberstroh: Fiction. As long as Indiana's starting five is on the floor, the Heat won't get let off easy. Those 32 minutes were the fewest George has played in a game the past two postseasons. The Heat won't be so lucky this time around, but I say they eke out a win.
Wade: Fiction. Or fact. Who knows? Harvey Dent or Anton Chigurh has a better chance of predicting a Pacers game than anyone who has watched the 98 games they've played this season.
Windhorst: Fiction. The Heat have trailed the majority of the time in this series. The Pacers have beaten them eight times in the past two seasons; they will not make it easy.