Without fanfare and media hype, Paul George took his talents to South Beach, became a star and put a scare into the Miami Heat.
That’s how the Eastern Conference finals will be remembered. The series is not over yet, though the Heat will close the deal soon enough and work on extending their mini-dynasty.
The Indiana Pacers made a positive impression and earned plenty of respect. George went toe to toe, for a while, with LeBron James, and Roy Hibbert showed the traditional center is not quite a basketball dinosaur. But the bottom line is the big ’dogs will fall a little short.
An intriguing NBA Finals matchup is essentially set, and forgive the underdog San Antonio Spurs for not shaking in their boots.
Miami no longer is the Big Three. A year after James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh delivered on their championship promise, the Heat have become LeBron and the Little Two.
“It’s almost like they deferred to LeBron the whole year, and now when you need those other guys to step up, they can’t step up,” said handicapper Erin Rynning of SportsMemo.com. “Miami is a funny team.”
James scored 30 points and Udonis Haslem stepped up with 16 as the Heat seized a 3-2 series lead with a 90-79 victory over the Pacers on Thursday. The teams meet again Saturday in Indianapolis, and if there’s a Game 7, Miami will win it.
The Heat will win even if Wade and Bosh are no-shows, as they were in Game 5, when Wade scored 10 points and Bosh, a 5-foot-11-inch shooting guard disguised as a 6-11 center, had seven. Wade is wearing down. Bosh just prefers to play small ball.
“Even when Bosh went to Miami, I don’t know how anyone considered him part of the Big Three,” LVH oddsmaker Jeff Sherman said. “The Spurs play such team basketball. They don’t have any individuals out there. Miami relies so much on James.”
Relying on LeBron is obviously not the worst thing in the world. His talent always has been awesome, and now his will to win is matching it. He can carry the Little Two to another title, if he’s not too run down by the time the Spurs finally roll into town for Thursday’s opener.
In a Finals sure to attract heavy action, Miami is expected to open as about a 3-1 favorite over San Antonio, which will have had 11 days off between games. Some will say that’s a plus for Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and the Spurs’ old-timers. But with too must rest, a team can lose its rhythm.
“There’s going to be such a long layoff. I don’t like that at all,” Sherman said. “It’s almost like a two-week break before the Super Bowl.”
But it also gives San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich more time to scout and prepare a game plan, if you witnessed how he worked on the Memphis Grizzlies’ weaknesses and took them apart in four games, that’s a big plus.
“I love Popovich as a coach,” Sherman said. “Everyone out there is saying, ‘I like San Antonio’s chances against Miami,’ and there will be so much media propaganda about the Spurs being 12-2 in the playoffs, and the public listens to that. It’s so volatile at this point. It’s a ‘what have you done lately’ type of mentality. I think we would probably get a little more ’dog money.”
The Spurs were knocked out of last year’s Western Conference finals by Oklahoma City, which then got overrun by the Big Three. But San Antonio looks stronger this time around, and Miami is more of a mystery.
Parker should provide a big edge at point guard, and the Spurs do have at least one young wing man, Kawhi Leonard, who can defend James.
“There are a lot of arguments about how San Antonio is going to match up with Miami,” Rynning said. “The one thing you worry about is just the pure athleticism of the Heat. I kind of flash back to last year’s Oklahoma City series, and that’s the only time in the last couple years that San Antonio didn’t really have any answers.
“But you wonder how Miami is going to match up with Parker, who was amazing in that Memphis series. It was impressive to make the Grizzlies, arguably the best defensive team in the NBA, look as bad as they did. I don’t think it’s going to be a cakewalk for Miami by any stretch of the imagination.”
Rynning bet the Heat minus-7½ and under 186 in Thursday’s game, the first game in the series that went under the total. The Pacers led 44-40 at half, thanks to a hot start by George, but were done in by their lack of depth and James’ determination.
George totaled 27 points and 11 rebounds. Hibbert and David West combined for 39 points. Do the math and see Indiana had only three players show up on South Beach.
“I respect that team a hell of a lot,” Sherman said. “The Pacers have good young talent, but you look at the bench and there’s not much there.”
LeBron, even with only a little help, is too much for the Pacers. Against the Spurs, it might be a different story.
Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM, 98.9 FM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.