2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

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Heat Punish Pacers In Physical Game 5

After the Pacers took a 2-1 series lead, it looked like Indiana was going to be able to run away with this series. Now momentum has completely flopped after the Heat won two games in a row in punishing fashion to take a 3-2 lead. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade put on another two-man show, Danny Granger and David West went down with injuries and Miami physically abused the rest of the Pacers in a 115-83 rout in Game 5.

LeBron James led the Heat with 30 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists and Dwyane Wade added 28 points. Indiana was in the game in the first half as Danny Granger knocked down three 3-pointers early, but after he landed awkwardly on his ankle on another 3-point attempt, he didn’t return and Miami blew the game wide open. Granger had 10 points before leaving the game and no one other than Paul George and David West reached double digits in scoring. George led the Pacers with just 11 points and West had 10. The Heat ended the half on a 8-2 run after Granger went down and then outscored Indiana by 10 in the third as West left the game right before the fourth quarter.

If Granger’s ankle injury hinders him in anyway for Game 6, the Pacers have no chance.

This was Indiana’s worst playoff game by far. They were out-rebounded 49-35, and whoever has won the battle for the boards in this series has won the game. Almost half of Miami’s 43 field goals were in the paint. The Heat racked up 10 blocks compared to Indiana’s three. Roy Hibbert has completely regressed into a non-factor despite his extreme height advantage over anyone on the Miami Heat. The Pacers shot 33 percent from the field compared to Miami’s 67 percent. Shane Battier outscored Indiana’s leading scorer by knocking down four 3-pointers to finish with 13. Granger and West went down with injuries and Granger is now questionable for Game 6 in Indiana. And to top it all off, the Heat banged up the Pacers even more with a couple of cheap fouls that earned suspensions from the league. In the first half, a hard foul from Tyler Hansbrough on Wade appropriately earned a flagrant one foul, which was the correct call because it was harsh, but Hansbrough made a play on the ball. That foul earned retaliation from Udonis Haslem, who clobbered Hansbrough and made no play on the ball. For some unknown reason, the foul didn’t earn a flagrant foul of any kind, even though it was clearly flagrant two material. And later on in the game when the outcome was all but decided, Dexter Pittman found an opportunity to retaliate on Lance Stephenson for making the choke sign in Game 3 as LeBron missed a free throw. Pittman nailed Stevenson in the throat with an elbow as he was crashing the boards and was seen on camera winking after the foul. Haslem earned a one-game suspension and Pittman was given three.

Losing Pittman is pretty irrelevant since he was only playing in garbage time but losing Haslem might be significant if Roy Hibbert ever wakes up. Haslem has been scoring and rebounding pretty well for the Heat off the bench in the last two games, especially in Game 4 when he helped finish off Indiana in the fourth quarter. However, if Granger and West aren’t at 100 percent for Game 8 in Indiana, the Pacers are finished even without Haslem. Although the Pacers’ bench gave them everything they could ask for in Game 5, Indiana’s starting five couldn’t get the job done. George Hill disappeared with only six points and Hibbert was just as bad with eight. The Pacers need to make serious changes in their play for Game 6 or they will be the sleeper team of the 2012 NBA Playoffs that fell short of accomplishing anything truly impressive.

Udonis Haslem was rightfully punished for his dirty foul on Tyler Hansbrough with a one game suspension.

Pacers Pound Miami In Game 3

The Indiana Pacers used balanced scoring and offensive depth to rout the Miami Heat at home in Game 3, taking a 2-1 lead on the series as Dwyane Wade and LeBron James struggled to carry the offensive load again. Indiana had big back-to-back quarters in the second and third (outscoring Miami 52-29 over that span) and despite a breakout performance from Mario Chalmers, the Pacers prevailed in convincing fashion at home with a 94-75 win.

The Heat were reeling after LeBron and Wade choked down the stretch in Game 2, but after Game 3 they’re in serious trouble of losing this series. George Hill led the Pacers with 20 points on 6-of-8 shooting, but the rest of Indiana’s starting lineup wasn’t far behind. Roy Hibbert finally had a terrific all-around game with 19 points, 18 rebounds and five blocks. Danny Granger also benefitted from playing in front of the Pacers’ home crowd and had 17 points and seven rebounds. David West chipped in 14 points and nine rebounds and Paul George added nine. Darren Collison only had seven off the bench, but his baskets came at a critical stretch in the fourth that kept the Pacers’ lead in double digits. The Pacers also out-rebounded the Chris Bosh-less Heat by a margin of 52-36. Nobody gave my sleeper team Indiana any credit in this series, even after Bosh went down. But it looks like the matchup problems I pointed out in my series predictions are starting to really come to life without Miami’s All-Star power forward on the court.

Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert had improved offensive nights and got the job done defensively, giving Indiana a 2-1 lead.

In the end, the outcome of this game was thoroughly predictable, especially considering how poorly Dwyane Wade shot the ball. Indiana had all the momentum heading into the night after Miami’s complete collapse in Game 2, which made the message known loud and clear: You might have two superstars, but we have balance and depth. Those two things are going to be tough for Miami to overcome if they continue to get so little out of their supporting cast. Mike Miller only had six points, yet another disappointing performance for someone so highly paid. Shane Battier and Dexter Pittman, two starters, put up goose eggs. But the worst was Wade, who was 2-for-13 from the field for only five points while also committed five turnovers. LeBron James, who had a solid first half with 16 points, finished with only 22 after an extremely quiet third quarter. LeBron hit back-to-back shots in the fourth quarter to try and rally his troops, but Indiana kept scoring to keep their double-digit advantage and Miami couldn’t put anything together as the lead extended to over 20. Mario Chalmers led the Heat with 25 points and Joel Anthony pitched in 10 off the bench, but once again, Miami’s supporting cast failed to show up. You combine that with Wade’s appalling offensive night and LeBron being virtually silent in the second half and there’s no question why Indiana turned the game into a rout.

Without Chris Bosh, this series has turned into a battle between depth and two superstars. Since one didn’t show up, Indiana’s balanced scoring completely overpowered the Heat. Home court advantage certainly didn’t hurt, as Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert came out firing and had much greater confidence on their own floor. Hill proved how deadly he can be when his shot is on and West and Paul gave solid contributions. Unless LeBron James and Dwyane Wade put on heroic performances in another tough road game in Indiana, this series could very well be over. A lot of people undervalued Bosh and downplayed his injury, saying it would just clear the way for LeBron and Wade to take over. But they seriously underestimated the impact Bosh had down low, and now that Hibbert and West are both going hard in the paint, the Heat have little chance. But the impact of Bosh’s injury doesn’t stop there. Bosh’s absence means LeBron has been moved to the power forward position to take on the task of guarding David West. It’s true that LeBron can “guard all five positions,” but that doesn’t mean he can shut down the physical West without their being drawbacks. West is physically wearing LeBron down and tiring him out, which explains his second half struggles in the past two games. Plus, LeBron switching to West means that Granger isn’t being shut down by the best defender on the court. West can overpower LeBron and Granger is starting to increase his offensive production at the same time. At this point, it would take a poor shooting night from the Pacers and transcendent games from LeBron and Wade for Miami to have any hope of tying the series in Game 4. But with Granger and Hibbert seemingly coming back to life, the Heat really have their hands full now.

Mario Chalmers had a big night, but without D-Wade it didn’t matter. Can Chalmers bring it again in Game 4?

Resilient Pacers Take Game 2 On The Road

It wasn’t pretty, but the Indiana Pacers found a way to win on the road against the Chris Bosh-less Heat and evened the series at one game apiece with a 78-75 victory. Although the Pacers didn’t gain a huge advantage in the middle with Bosh on the sidelines, they kept their playoff hopes alive by taking care of business and splitting games on Miami’s floor. Now the series heads back to Indiana where the Pacers will try to take advantage of playing at home and possibly take a lead in the series.

When Chris Bosh went down in Game 1 with a low abdominal strain, the sports world seemed to be divided: half (including me) thought the Heat’s chances of winning a title or even winning this series were seriously hurt by Bosh’s injury, while the other half believed it would just clear the way for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to shine. Game 2 was a little bit of both, but only because both teams shot the ball so poorly. The Pacers shot under 38 percent and the Heat were even worse at just under 35 percent. The Heat were also an appalling 1-for-16 from downtown, so even though LeBron finished with 28 points, nine rebounds, six steals and five assists to complement Dwyane Wade’s 24 points, six rebounds and four assists, the Heat couldn’t get anything out of their supporting cast to beat the better all-around team effort from Indiana.

The Pacers limited the Heat’s scoring to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade with Chris Bosh out.

The Pacers had a serious scoring drought in the second quarter before putting a run together to head into the locker room down by five. In the third quarter, however, Indiana came to life thanks to David West and Danny Granger, who picked up the offensive intensity. West led Indiana with 16 points and 10 rebounds while Granger, who had another poor shooting night but found open shooters and played quality defense on LeBron, pitched in 11 points and six rebounds. The Pacers outscored the Heat 28-14 in the third and took a nine point lead heading into the fourth. Miami battled back in the game’s final minutes and it could have gone either way, but neither team seemed ready to seize control of the game by making their free throws. LeBron James missed three free throws in the fourth, including two back-to-backs that would have given the Heat the lead with 54 seconds to play. George Hill could have put the game away for the Pacers with 14 seconds left, but only made one of two and gave Mario Chalmers a chance to erase Indiana’s three point advantage at the buzzer (which was a really bad decision on Erik Spoelstra’s part). Fortunately for Indiana, it didn’t fall and the Pacers took Game 2 on the road.

Indiana winning this game was huge not only because they gave themselves a chance to compete in this series, but also because they did it without Roy Hibbert having a big impact. Hibbert has really struggled on the offensive end in the postseason, which is inexcusable considering the vast size advantage he’s had on opponents so far. At some point, the Pacers won’t be able to contend without Hibbert having a few prolific scoring nights, but for now, being able to win without Hibbert putting up big numbers was a huge accomplishment despite the fact that Miami blew numerous chances to finish them off at home. With no Chris Bosh, Frank Vogel needs to find a way to exploit Miami’s weakness down low and get both Hibbert and West involved. Danny Granger still needs to shoot the ball better and 17 turnovers is way too many to give a Heat team that thrives off transition buckets. But Indiana’s defensive strategy of focusing on shutting down Wade worked for the most part and showed the world that a Miami Heat team without Bosh is very vulnerable against a complete team with multiple contributors (side note: that no-call when Wade looked like he was fouled by Dahntay Jones was a great no-call. Stop flopping, Wade. You’re better than that). George Hill and Paul George both stepped up, Granger’s contribution was slightly improved and Leandro Barbosa had a solid game off the bench, as opposed to the Heat, who had no one score more than five points other than LeBron and Wade. With home court advantage, Indiana needs to capitalize and get big games from Granger and Hibbert while only allowing LeBron and Wade to hurt them on the other end. If they do these things at home, Miami will have their hands full against this dangerous Indiana squad.

Danny Granger had a better game but Indiana still needs more out of him.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade And Indiana Foul Trouble Gives Miami 1-0 Lead

Even with Chris Bosh on the sidelines for the majority of the game, the Miami Heat gutted out a 95-86 Game 1 win over the Pacers thanks to elevated performances from LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Indiana’s foul trouble. Bosh suffered a lower abdominal strain late in the second quarter and did not return, but Miami was able to capitalize with a few of the Pacers’ key players on the bench to grab a 1-0 lead on the series.

The Pacers came out swinging and opened up a 13-4 lead early on, but the Heat battled back and were down by just six at halftime. A lot of credit has to go to Mario Chalmers, because although he only had four points, he drew a huge charge on George Hill that shifted momentum in Miami’s favor. As the Heat were making a run and Hill had three fouls, the Pacers tried to get the ball past half court to call a timeout. However, Chalmers stepped in front of Hill’s path right before Indiana could call the timeout and Hill barreled right into him, sending him to the bench with four fouls in the first half. Darren Collison stepped in and finished with 10 points, but with such limited playing time, Hill was never able to fully establish a rhythm and help his team compete in Game 1. Dwayne Wade also had a big night, finishing with 29 points (13 of which came from the free throw line). I’m not a big fan of a few of Wade’s flops that earned him trips to the foul line and Frank Vogel looks like a prophet now after saying the Heat flop and that how the officials call the game would have an effect on the outcome (foul trouble hurt the Pacers), but Wade’s effectiveness was unquestionable either way you look at it.

Chris Bosh went down early, but LeBron and D-Wade carried the Heat to victory.

The most credit has to go to LeBron James, however. James won the game for his team by taking over in the fourth quarter after Danny Granger had done a decent job of limiting him in the first half. James scored half of his points in the fourth quarter and he and Wade outscored Indiana’s entire team 42-38 in the second half. He finished with 32 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, two steals, a block and just one turnover. James also did another stellar job of shutting down Granger, who is Indiana’s leading scorer. Although Granger is not a superstar or a crunch time hero, he is still the Pacers’ biggest offensive contributor, and without him putting up points, Indiana doesn’t stand a chance in this series. Granger could only muster seven points on 1-of-10 shooting with LeBron guarding him, which effectively secured the win for Miami with so many Pacers in foul trouble. Even though Chris Bosh was out, the Pacers weren’t able to exploit Miami’s disadvantage in the post because Roy Hibbert was in foul trouble early and missed a considerable amount of time in the second half. Hibbert finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds, but when he was out in the fourth quarter, Miami made their run and didn’t look back from there.

Bosh had 13 points before he was challenged on a dunk by David West, which caused his shoulder to snap back as he was at the peak of his jump. Bosh landed and immediately went to the ground before making his way to the locker room a few plays later. With Bosh out, Hibbert began to excel on offense and defense before getting into foul trouble. West was also able to capitalize on Bosh’s absence with 17 points and 12 rebounds. Unfortunately for Indiana, foul trouble to Hibbert, Hill and Paul George kept them from really being effective, and with LeBron taking Granger out of his game and shutting him down, it was impressive the Pacers were even in the game. Indiana’s bench contributed, with guys like Collison, Leandro Barbosa and Tyler Hansbrough pitching in crucial points off the bench. If Bosh is out, Indiana has to do three things to stay competitive in the series. First, they must exploit Miami’s posts with Hibbert and West. If Bosh’s MRI reveals that he will miss extended time in the series, Indiana has to pound the ball in down low, because Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony can’t stop the Pacers’ frontcourt for an entire series. Second, they have to get better performances out of Danny Granger. Granger is averaging just 12 ppg against the Heat in five games, a testament to LeBron James’ defense. Granger scored 25 in Indiana’s one win over Miami during the regular season and he had 19 when they lost by two at the beginning of March. In the other three games, Granger put up just over five points a game. Granger has to find a way to score despite LeBron’s stifling defense. Finally, the Pacers’ bench needs to continue to contribute. Staying out of foul trouble goes without saying, but if Indiana’s role players (Collison, Barbosa and Hansbrough) can keep up this production, the Pacers will be tough to beat. I still believe the Heat will advance, but the Pacers have been my sleeper team all year and I hope I’m right when I say this team will give the Heat more problems than most people think.

David West and Roy Hibbert have an advantage down low, especially if Bosh is out for awhile.

Second Round Preview: Miami Heat Vs. Indiana Pacers

After knocking their opponents out of the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs in five games, the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers will meet in the second round in a matchup between the two hottest teams in the Eastern Conference. LeBron James, who was named the league MVP yesterday, is coming off a particularly dominant series against the New York Knicks, not because he outscored Carmelo Anthony, but because he was more efficient and took over games when he needed to. However, James and the rest of the Heat face a much better all-around team than the injury-depleted Knicks. In what is sure to be a competitive and physical series, the Heat are favorites to win, but don’t underestimate the Pacers.

Indiana has been my sleeper team all year, and now is their time to show whether or not they have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with the best player in the world and a defensively intimidating Miami squad. The Heat bested the Pacers three out of four times during the regular season, winning two in routs and one in overtime before losing their final meeting by 15. Indiana will have to improved their defense to have a chance, as Miami is averaging almost 102 points per contest against them. They will also have to make sure everyone comes ready to score, since they Pacers averaged just over 92 ppg against the Heat. The Pacers don’t have a designated crunch time scorer or an elite superstar, but Danny Granger absolutely has to put up points as Indiana’s best offensive weapon. How he matches up with LeBron James, Shane Battier or whoever else Miami throws at him could very well be the difference between competing and being swept. Granger had a tendency of disappearing against the Heat this season, averaging just 13 points per game, a whole eight points below his average for the season. If Granger can’t produce night in and night out, Miami will have no problem here.

This is the first key matchup: Can Danny Granger score on LeBron James? And can Granger have any hope of stopping LeBron on the other end?

There are a few other key factors that will determine who advances to the Eastern Conference Finals. The first is how effective Roy Hibbert is down low. Hibbert has a huge size and talent advantage over Miami’s post players, but against the Magic (with no Dwight Howard), Hibbert was pushed around and outplayed by the shorter, more physical Glen Davis. None of Miami’s centers are talented enough to score on Hibbert, but if they are able to push him around on defense, the Pacers will be at a huge disadvantage. The matchup between David West and Chris Bosh will also be important to watch, as West is more physical but Bosh has more skill and length. Indiana needs West to convincingly win this matchup, because if Bosh starts putting up big numbers, the Pacers will not be able to stop LeBron and Dwyane Wade and Bosh. The final deciding factor will be how Indiana’s guards perform up against D-Wade. George Hill and Darren Collison certainly have to outplay Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller, who have been seen as thorns in Miami’s side all season. If Hill and Collison consistently put up points and prevent the Heat’s guards from getting open looks from beyond the arc, the Pacers will have a chance in the series. LeBron and Wade are going to get their 20-30 points a night, but if Indiana can find a way to limit Bosh, get a few big nights out of Hibbert and have Granger lead in scoring, they will be competitive. Finally, a huge X-factor for the Pacers could be Leandro Barbosa. Believe it or not, Barbosa is Indiana’s leading scorer against the Heat this season. Okay, so maybe it was only one game, but he put up 14 points in that game, and after being practically silent for the first round, the Pacers would love to get something out of him off the bench again. Barbosa and Collison will need to score off the bench to ensure their starters get some time to rest without worrying about falling too far behind.

However, even if Indiana’s guards outplay Miami’s and even if Hibbert and West beat up on the Heat’s bigs, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade could be too much for the Pacers. George Hill and/or Danny Granger will be able to use some length to bother LeBron’s jump shot, but as soon as he starts attacking the basket, the Pacers’ defense is in trouble. Indiana is a much better overall team than the Knicks (and to be honest, the Heat weren’t truly dominant against New York) and they’ll give Miami a battle, but I don’t have enough confidence in Indiana to pick them over LeBron and the Heat.

Prediction: Miami over Indiana in 6 games

If Roy Hibbert can’t take advantage of his size and skill set, the Pacers are in trouble.

Pacers Advance

The Indiana Pacers eliminated the Orlando Magic with a 105-87 win at home in Game 5 last night to advance to the second round of the playoffs. A rocking crowd in the biggest basketball state in the country was there to cheer Indiana on to their first playoff series victory since 2005. The Pacers will now face the winner of the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks in the next round.

Danny Granger led the way for a playoff victory-deprived franchise, finishing with 25 points. Roy Hibbert didn’t have an exceptional game, but luckily for the Pacers, neither did Glen Davis, who had just 15 points and eight rebounds after being the Magic’s best offensive option through the first four games. George Hill and David West both reached double digits in scoring, but it was Darren Collison who ensured the Magic went home empty-handed, scoring 15 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter to turn Indiana’s two point deficit after three quarters into a rout. The Pacers outscored Orlando 36-16 in the fourth quarter and ran away with the game despite Jameer Nelson hitting five 3-pointers and leading the Magic with 27 points.

Glen Davis hurt the Pacers all series long, but couldn’t get it done in Game 5.

For Orlando, Glen Davis’ mediocre game really hurt their chances of extending the series, but the majority of these games could have been much closer had Ryan Anderson shown up. Anderson only scored 14 points in Game 4 and averaged just 8.5 ppg for the series on a team with no Dwight Howard and struggling perimeter shooters. The Magic were also hurt by Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu, who didn’t take many shots and missed the majority of them. Orlando surprised everyone with their Game 1 win in Indiana, but after getting that one victory to prove the world wrong and let everyone know they could play without Dwight Howard, they came back down to earth when the Pacers actually showed up for the next four games and revealed who the better team was. The battle between Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy over who will stay will likely be decided over the course of the next few months in the offseason, but Orlando had better hope they pick Superman. As good as Van Gundy is, he’s not more valuable than their superstar, which became clear after watching this series against a Pacers team that hasn’t exactly played lights out yet. While it’s unfortunate to suggest Orlando needs to pick their spoiled superstar over an extremely effective coach, the fact is that Van Gundy couldn’t elevate this team to the next level. Dwight Howard can. And if they do get rid of Howard, they’d better be sure to get another game changer who can lift this below-average squad back into playoff contention.

From Indiana’s side of things, they had pretty balanced scoring and really enjoyed the boost off the bench they got from Collison. They face a tough matchup in the second round, most likely against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. If the Knicks miraculously come back and take the series from Miami, Indiana has a much better shot of advancing, provided they limit Carmelo Anthony. Tyson Chandler will likely outplay Roy Hibbert but if David West can frustrate Amare Stoudemire, the Pacers have a better overall team. However, Miami will most likely advance, meaning the Pacers will have to do a few things to be competitive. Danny Granger will have to play lights out offensively and help with the boards. Paul George will have to find a way to use his length to bother LeBron while still contributing on the offensive end. George Hill and Darren Collison will have to keep up their recent level of production and demolish Miami’s guards. And Roy Hibbert will finally have to exploit his opponent’s lack of size to give his side some sort of advantage down low. David West and Chris Bosh will be a key matchup, but if Hibbert can dominate Miami’s bigs, the Pacers have a chance of competing with the Heat. The Pacers would also benefit from their bench outscoring Miami’s. In their series with New York, the Heat have gotten a small advantage from their bench and supporting cast with guys like Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Mike Miller hitting a few 3-pointers. This can’t happen to Indiana if they want to shock the world by knocking LeBron James out of the playoffs.

Danny Granger led the way for Indiana, but he’ll have to step it up even more next round.