The basketball gods are clearing a plushly carpeted path for the Heat to get back to the NBA Finals, or so the thinking goes. The Bulls are still without Derrick Rose, whose ability to fully bounce back from last season's ACL tear is still iffy. The Celtics are a M.A.S.H. unit, having just lost point guard Rajon Rondo and forward Jared Sullinger for the season. The Nets have been inconsistent since moving to Brooklyn. Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks look like contenders, so long as their geriatric roster stays healthy. And Indiana? After a brief scare Miami took out the Pacers in six games last year—without Chris Bosh. Next.
Indy swingman Paul George remembers that series. For weeks he wouldn't let himself forget. At his exit meeting George requested edited film of all six games. On the flight to his off-season home in California, George, who shot just 36.7% in the final three games, relived the series—and blamed himself for how it ended. "I felt terrible," says the 6'8", 221-pound George. "Had I been more aggressive, we could have gotten over the hump."
George held on to the DVDs, watching them, he says, "countless times." They were motivation. Last summer he zeroed in on his dribbling because, George says, "I felt if I worked on my handle, I could get to the spots I wanted to. I felt I already had the playmaking and the shotmaking abilities." The 22-year-old showed up to training camp a more aggressive player, and when leading scorer Danny Granger went down with a knee injury in October, George filled the void. After averaging 9.7 shots last year, he was putting up 15.1 at week's end. And they're going in. Through Sunday, George was averaging 17.3 points to go with his 7.7 rebounds. "There is no hesitation in his game anymore," says a scout. "You can tell he feels like he belongs out there."
He's not the only one, either. Last season 6'5", 228-pound shooting guard Lance Stephenson was a mop-up man whose most notable moment in the playoffs was getting into a confrontation with Heat forward Juwan Howard before the start of Game 4. This season Stephenson, 22, has slipped into Granger's spot and proved to be a capable shooter (47.9%) while spearheading Indiana's top-ranked defense. "He is physical on the ball, and he has great anticipation," says another scout. "But more important, he isn't intimidated by anyone. He will get right in your face. A young team like Indiana needs that."
The Pacers' pups have made Indiana (28--19 at week's end) a bona fide contender under coach Frank Vogel, whose grind-it-out style is well-suited to the playoffs. David West (17.0 points per game) is a load in the post. Roy Hibbert has regressed offensively (9.9 points per game, down from 12.8), in part because of the absence of Granger's perimeter shooting, in part because opponents are more aware of him after his breakout last season. But Hibbert is still a force defensively in the paint and on the glass, the precise areas where the Heat—which has hung a help wanted: big man sign on its arena door—is the most vulnerable.
In two wins against Miami this season—including a 102--89 pasting last Friday—the Pacers have dominated on the boards (89--61) and controlled the points in the paint (76--64). When Indiana needed fourth-quarter points on Friday, there was George, delivering six of them. When they needed stops, there was Stephenson, hounding Dwyane Wade into a 7-for-16 shooting night. "We feel like we have good matchups with them," says West. "Last year we didn't have enough growth to meet the challenge. This year it's different."
Granger is expected back by the All-Star break, and Vogel's challenge will be to incorporate him without stunting the development of George and Stephenson. But if dealing with the return of an All-Star is the toughest challenge he has to face, the coach can't be too upset. Besides, the 6'8", 228-pound Granger has the size to fill in at power forward, giving Vogel the option to trot out a dynamic small lineup. It's another weapon in the arsenal, another reason to believe that if the Pacers and the Heat meet again in the playoffs, a different team could advance.