Who rules the East? Heat vs. Pacers
Here are some key questions heading into Wednesday's Eastern Conference battle
The Heat and Pacers both have struggled in March, each going 7-7. Will the winner of tonight's matchup (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) get back on track as the regular season winds down? Our 5-on-5 squad weighs in on the two title contenders.
1. Playoff odds say the Heat have a 10 percent chance of winning the NBA title. Too high, too low or just right?
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: Too low. I'm still of the opinion that a Heat-Pacers conference finals will happen. And that series would be something of a toss-up. So let's say there's a 45 percent chance the Heat make the NBA Finals. Are the odds of beating a Western Conference foe in the Finals so low that it drops Miami's chances to 10 percent? I know that's not how these numbers are calculated, but it still feels too low.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: Too low. I'd probably put it at 30 percent, or roughly the same as a Dwyane Wade made 3-pointer. Doesn't sound like very good odds, does it? I think the defending champs should be considered the favorite, but Wade's health uncertainty, the loaded West and a lagging defense has me picking the field.
Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: Too low. The ship doesn't look right, but the Heat seem like a lock to make it to the Finals at this point. And there is a rumor circling that employing the world's best player increases your odds of winning in a seven-game series.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: Too low. I'd give the Heat closer to a 40 percent chance of winning it all and becoming just the fourth franchise in NBA history to take three consecutive titles. The Heat are on pace to have their worst regular-season finish of the LeBron James-Wade-Chris Bosh era, but this team has proved it is built for the postseason. If healthy, it remains the team to beat, although the Spurs look like they don't want to leave any margin for error this time.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Too low. They have the best player in his prime and a team that has proved over and over that it rises to the occasion in the postseason. LeBron has been to four Finals in the past seven years and won it twice. That's better than 10 percent.
2. Playoff odds say the Pacers have a 5 percent chance of winning the NBA title. Too high, too low or just right?
Gutierrez: Too low. Similar to the Heat's explanation, the difference with the Pacers being the confidence that they can beat a West offensive powerhouse like the Spurs, Thunder or Clippers. When the Pacers were rolling, that seemed possible. Now it's a more difficult question. Still, 5 percent sounds like the Pacers are a major underdog. The team with the third-best record in the league should have better odds.
Haberstroh: Just right. Here's a list of some teams that have had a better offensive rating than Indy since Jan. 1: Sacramento Kings, Milwaukee Bucks, Utah Jazz and Cleveland Cavaliers. That doesn't sound like championship material. The Pacers could right the ship, but the offensive malaise has dropped them several spots on the championship contender totem pole.
Wade: I'll be kind: just right. If we're being honest, even zero percent feels too high at this point. The Pacers play in the East, so there is definitely a chance that they can turn it around by the second round of the playoffs, but it's not hard to argue that all eight of the West playoff teams should be ahead of Indiana in the power rankings right now.
Wallace: Too low. Let's double it to 10 percent. Indiana has dropped seven of its past 12 games and is fading down the stretch of the regular season. But I prefer to look at the larger body of work over the course of the entire season. I still see one of the most balanced rosters in the league and an elite defensive team when it plays with confidence. The Pacers' biggest obstacle right now is Miami. If they get past the Heat, which would be a 50-50 series right now, their chances of winning it all should drastically improve their championship odds.
Windhorst: Too low. The Pacers aren't playing well right now and are not trending great, it must be said. But they are a team totally built for the playoffs, and they have been a fantastic home team all season. As of now, they would have home court in the first three rounds.
3. True or False: There's a reasonable chance one of these teams won't make the East finals.
Gutierrez: True, depending on the definition of "reasonable." But I believe a team like Chicago can beat the Pacers, should they meet. The Nets have confidence they can beat Miami if they meet. Injuries could still come into play on both sides. Sure, there's a reasonable chance. But I wouldn't predict anything different.
Haberstroh: True. Guess who has the East's best point differential since the calendar flipped to 2014? Yep, the Toronto Raptors (plus-5.0). Then comes, in order, the Heat, Bulls, Pacers and Nets. In other words, this is far from a two-horse race. After a slow start, the Raptors, Bulls and Nets have closed the gap in the past few months.
Wade: True. Neither team is playing good basketball, and while both still should get there on talent alone, there is no guarantee -- especially for the Pacers. Even last season, they had to grind past the Hawks and Knicks to make the East finals, so one misstep (or worse, an injury) could easily leave them short of their 2012-13 finish.
Wallace: False. But I guess that depends on one's interpretation of reasonable. Are the Nets and Bulls capable of crashing the party and preventing what once seemed like an inevitable Heat-Pacers rematch in the conference finals? Yes, they're both capable. Is it possible? Yes. But reasonable? I'm not quite sure I'd go that far just yet. What the Heat and Pacers have shown recently is that their flaws will force them to carry on deeper into a series than they probably should go.
Windhorst: True. Of course that depends on your definition of reasonable. The Nets have been better than both of these teams in the past two months, and the Bulls have a puncher's chance in any series. I wouldn't pick it, but of course it's possible.
4. True or False: The winner of tonight's game is the favorite to be the No. 1 seed in the East.
Gutierrez: True. Should Miami win, it could serve as the catalyst to turn it on down the stretch. Should Indiana win, that would put Miami three games back with 12 to play. Probably too much to overcome.
Haberstroh: True. This isn't about momentum; it's about the tiebreaker scenario. Not only does a win improve the chances of finishing with a better record, but it brings the victorious squad one step closer to winning the tiebreaker, should they both finish with the same record. (The season series is tied at 1, with two games left.)
Wade: True. With so few games left, whoever wins would have to be a slight favorite. But the Heat's path to home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs is easier because the Pacers play six of their final 10 games on the road. Worse still, they welcome the Spurs and Thunder for two of the remaining four games in Indianapolis. Meanwhile, Miami faces no elite competition and has a five-game homestand soon to fix some of its issues.
Wallace: True. A Pacers win would give them a three-game lead with a dozen games left. That would essentially kick-start the Heat's Big Three maintenance program to rest up for the playoffs. A Heat win would slice Indiana's lead to one game and pull them even in the loss column. With the Pacers then facing Washington, Cleveland and San Antonio, the Heat could be in the No. 1 spot by the end of the weekend, should they take care of business against Detroit and Milwaukee.
Windhorst: True. Especially for the Pacers. If they win, they have a three-game lead, plus they will have essentially won the tiebreaker. If the Heat win, they have a tie in the loss column and the remaining meeting at home, where they could clinch the tiebreaker.
5. Heat or Pacers: Who wins tonight?
Gutierrez: Pacers. There's just something about Miami that ignites this Indiana group. Not just Roy Hibbert, but Paul George tends to find ways to be effective. The Heat are just 1-5 in their past six games in Indianapolis (including playoffs), and it's not as if Miami is playing especially well at the moment.
Haberstroh: Pacers. They're playing at home, where they've been juggernauts this season. If this were tipping off in Miami, I'd probably go with the Heat. Throw in the fact that Wade is banged up and I see Indiana getting the much-needed win.
Wade: Who knows? Both teams are .500 in their past 10 games, and neither is inspiring much confidence. I suppose Miami at least has some momentum after beating two good teams (Memphis and Portland) since Friday, while the Pacers have embarrassed themselves in three of their past four. So, sure, give me the Heat (he says after flipping a coin).
Wallace: Pacers. If you're truly a conference title contender with the best home record in the league entering a high-stakes showdown in your gym, it's a game you should win. Add in the fact that Miami's second-best player, Wade, is on sore wheels if he plays and the Heat's confidence is a bit rattled right now and the Pacers have no excuse to lose this game. That said, the Heat did go to Oklahoma City under similar circumstances last month and bullied the Thunder.
Windhorst: Pacers. They're 32-4 at home, and they're more desperate right now.