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The Inbounds: Indiana and defense of second

Aug 6, 2012, 12:38 PM EDT

Miami Heat v Indiana Pacers - Game Three Getty Images

Welcome to the Inbounds, touching on one big idea, story, or discussion point of the day. 

It’s fine to think the Celtics were the second best team in the East in last year’s playoffs (factoring the Bulls post-Rose injury). I mean, they finished second, right? They pushed the eventual NBA champions to seven games, and were up 3-2 with a chance to close at home. They had to be the second best team in the East.

But they weren’t. Not really.

The most infuriating thing about the current NBA playoff structure, even more so than the fact they continue to hold the conferences as an intelligent means of dividing the field, is the lack of re-seeding every round. Surely in this modern, information superseries of tubes world we have going on, we can get around the travel issues inherent in re-seeding the field after every round. Because what happens can have drastic consequences. Like the Celtics making the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics landed the Hawks in their bracket, and no problem there. They established a mental advantage on the Hawks in Game 2 and the series was over from that point on.

But when Derrick Rose went down and the Sixers managed to Omer-Asik their way to an escape, the field should have been redistributed. The Sixers should have headed to face Miami, while the Pacers and Celtics battled it out. And a little hidden secret? The Pacers were a much better team, even in the playoffs, than Boston.

Celtics fan! Please! Hold your molotov cocktails and pitchforks. The Celtics’ run last season was incredible precisely because it was against such odds. They had so many things going against the, their chances were so unlikely, that it makes it all the more impressive they nearly ran the gamut.

But the Pacers were the better team. Had Boston and Indiana met in the second round as they should have, we could have settled this question. I don’t have any issue with thinking Boston was the better team. That seems pretty obvious. My source of disagreement comes from what we saw from both teams and the unpredictability of the playoffs. The Pacers were in a better position to knock off Miami than Boston was, despite them going down in six, not seven. It’s about the structural makeup of the team. Indiana’s size advantage was first and foremost. They had a legit center in Roy Hibbert, and they have no discernible weak spot in their starting lineup. They had depth and versatility, and the roster makeup to match up with different lineups.

They lost because LeBron James is the best player on the planet. As did Boston.

But regardless of what you think about last year’s playoffs, when we look to the future, the East behind Miami is even more uncertain. There’s Miami, certainly, and a gap, certainly (Jason Terry does not a gap close make, when considering another year on them old bones). But after that it gets nuts. Remember, New York very much looked like the second best team in the East to start last year. They suffered more injury issues than anyone outside of Chicago, and their defense was playoff-good. Who knows how good the Nets can be if everything falls into place for them? Chicago is a question mark, but that defense will hold them together.

But Boston in the prohibitive favorite to be second in the East. They added Jason Terry, get Jeff Green back, throw in Courtney Lee, retain Chris Wilcox. I’ve written about how good they can be next year.

But age can still take its toll. Age is like Jaws, it doesn’t give you warning, it just takes your legs. And though the supporting cast of the Celtics has gotten younger, what drove that team last year was the play of Kevin Garnett, with Paul Pierce in spurts. Rajon Rondo is the chef, without him, there’s no meal. But the younger players are the appetizers, the garnish, the desert. The meal is still KG and the Truth. And there’s no way of telling when those players will start playing their age. Maybe they never will. Maybe they’ll defy all odds. Garnett certainly takes offense to any assessment that he’s old. But you have to watch it, carefully.

Indiana continues to slip beneath the radar. You can throw out the Darren Collison trade as a reason they’ll fall to the side, but George Hill played well for most of the season, and they added more size in Ian Mahinmi. Again, in an East where Dwight Howard is the only other legitimate center in the playoff picture, the Pacers have the second best center and a quality legit center. They have an armada of versatile forwards. And they get another full season to play together.

Indiana could take a step backwards. Like Philadelphia, it’s possible they simply benefited from the shortened season’s hammering of teams like Boston and throwing the season into chaos. Boston can very well take that step forward. But when you look at Danny Granger’s comments, you recognize their awareness of how close they were. Indiana went at Miami with everything they had. They weren’t intimidated or just happy to be there. They truly believed they could win that series. And they almost pulled it off.

Boston hung with Miami because they’re specifically well-tailored to combat James and the Heat. Indiana hung because they’re really that good of a team.

This all seems irrelevant, though, when you look at Miami and what they bring to the table next year. A full actualized LeBron James, a healthier Dwyane Wade, a resurgent Chris Bosh who understands how he fits, a core with more confidence, and Ray Allen. The gap is not narrow between Miami and the rest of the East. But the rest of the teams are just waiting for one of those seasons when something happens to move Miami off the top block. Then it would be a mad scramble. Most would have confidence in Boston. But to ignore what Indiana brings to the table is dangerous.

Had reseeding occurred last season, we might view Indiana as the kind of powerhouse we view Boston as. But as it stands, they seem ready to fill into a familiar slot, as a great team full of likable players who are lost in the shine of the championship team right above them.

No. 2, though? That’s a fight they’re prepared for.

The most interesting question between the two may be who has the most they can figure out to unlock potential. Indiana was in their first year together with David West and George Hill. Boston of course has the remaining Big 3 which know each other but have a number of new elements. You could say there’s a lot to unlock for this new Celtics team, but there’s still a ton of room for Indiana to unearth in its identity.

Under the context of a normal season with normal rest and normal practice, that may be the deciding factor in who winds up closest to the throne.

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