A week ago, it was a foregone conclusion that the Heat would beat the Pacers and advance to the NBA Finals.
Last Sunday, the Heat rebounded from a tough loss and ran away with Game 3, and it seemed like the train was right back on the tracks. Since then, the Pacers have taken two of three and now SportsCenter is asking the question: should the Heat dump Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, even if they win tonight?
It's a common refrain. There was 'break up the Heat' talk after they stumbled in 2011, and even a little bit over last summer after Bosh struggled and was hurt during the 2012 title run. With Wade's struggles and injuries this season, the talk cropped up again. After both sidekicks no-showed the last few games, it's gotten louder. LeBron James made a reference to his "Cleveland days," with the implication being he was the only one on the court worth a damn and that he was carrying the team himself.
He was sort of right, of course. Wade and Bosh have been invisible at times, and we already know from past experience that LeBron can only drag a team so far by himself. He's shouldered an incredible burden at various times in his career, and Bron tends to feel sorry for himself and vent more than you'd expect from a superduperstar. But if the Heat lose tonight, and I very much doubt they will, it won't be Wade's fault or Bosh's or Bron's or Erik Spoelstra's or Pat Riley's or anyone in the Heat organization.
Because the Pacers are good. Damn good. We knew that last year, when they gave the Heat a run, but this year with Paul George making the leap to star and resurgent runs from David West and Roy Hibbert, this is a team designed to give the Heat problems. Coach Frank Vogel seems content to let LeBron get his and have the team play excellent defense otherwise. He can do that with George playing Bruce Bowen-caliber perimeter D, and with Hibbert locking down the paint like this was 1999 and big men still mattered.
The Heat have no answer for Hibbert, and certainly none for David West, who has a giant X tattooed on his massive bicep (for Xavier, but also for 'X marks where I am going to bury you on this court, Chris Bosh') and has been abusing whoever he wants.
The Heat are... well, kind of a wimpy team. They're easy to punk - several teams, including the Knicks, have gone hard after them with physical play and preening and fired-up home crowds and the Heat have several times simply walked off the court, either literally or figuratively, as time ticked away. I don't think it's a collective character flaw in the Heat's psyche - I think it's a function of having a giant target on your back, and having every single team for 100+ games play them as if it were Game 7 of the Finals. It can be exhausting to get an opponent's A+ game night after night, but that's what happens when you're the defending champion super squad.
The Heat will probably win tonight, because they're at home and they are veterans and and they have the best player in the world and they have guys like Ray Allen and Shane Battier who are adept at going off in these types of situations. Allen in particular can swing a game single-handedly with his shooting. Chris Anderson returns to give the Heat some shot blocking, attitude, and neck tattoos. Plus, the Heat lost only four times at home in the regular season - twice to the Knicks. They dropped one to the Bulls last round at home, and once to the Pacers this round despite 36 from LeBron, thanks to a huge game from Indiana's Hibbert.
So the math says, the Heat will win. Logic backs that up. Common sense too. But if the Pacers win, it's going to be because they are a better team right now than Miami. Maybe not on paper, maybe not with as many All-Stars, but in terms of matchups, and coaching, and that stupid "heart" concept, yeah - they might be better.