The last time the Pacers suffered a devastating seven game Eastern Conference Finals loss to the eventual NBA Champions led by the world’s most dominant player in 1998, the prospect of future battles with this opponent didn’t linger in Indiana’s mind. Michael Jordan had retired, and the Chicago Bulls had disbanded after losing Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman as well. This time around, there was no dissolving of the threat that denied the Pacers from their first Finals appearance since 2000. The Miami Heat and their perennial MVP candidate LeBron James still remain as the biggest hindrance to Indiana’s quest to dispel the notion that tanking is the sole strategy for a team to transcend from mediocrity to being a conference champion (George was a late lottery pick, Stephenson was a 2nd round pick, Hibbert and Granger were both mid first round picks). Thus every time these two powerhouses are scheduled to enter the ring together, one better expect the gloves to be irrelevantly lying on the ground. But just as the Knicks’ two victories over Miami in November and December 2012 are seemingly currently insignificant to the NBA landscape, I will disregard the outcome of these affairs. Rather I will dissect the advantages and deficiencies for both teams that will play an integral part in this match up moving to their inevitable showdown in late May.
The Pacers’ foundation lies in their impeccable rim protection. Out of the ten players who have faced the most field goal attempts per game at the basket including defensive stalwarts Dwight Howard, Serge Ibaka, and Deandre Jordan, it’s Roy Hibbert who has allowed the fewest of these shots to descend through the hoop. Against Miami who has the highest percentage of makes from within five feet and the second largest from five to nine feet, Hibbert’s usual defensive antics become tremendously significant. Throughout their most recent game, the Heat penetrators Chalmers, Wade, James, and Cole were successfully able to foray into the paint whether it be off of a screen or a quick first step. Unfortunately for Miami, they were met by Hibbert’s monstrous 7’4” wingspan, which forces them to swing the ball back out to the perimeter. Now the ensuing activity determines the Heat’s offensive mindset moving forward.
Here we see Chalmers freeing up after the Battier screen. But he runs into West and Hibbert, as Hill and George collapse on Chalmers as well. Although James and Battier are open, Chalmers can’t get off a good pass
In the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Miami’s first two offensive possessions resulted in Bosh and Battier freeing up and drilling the open jump shot because of Hibbert’s tendency to help on the ball handler following the pick and roll. The Pacers are willing to relinquish the mid and long range shot to the Heat just like they did on Bosh’s open three that tied the game at 92, as long as nothing easy comes inside. But if Miami begins to convert those attempts, more onus is placed on the perimeter defenders to not get dusted. Also this insinuates that Indiana cannot continue to collapse on the ball handler in the post after a screen. Thus Miami continues to attack off the dribble, and this completely throws off the Pacers’ defensive schemes, and they surrender 30 points in a quarter like they did in the first quarter of this game.
In the American Airlines Arena, the Heat started 0 for 9 from three-point range. That gives the Pacers all the incentive in the world to crowd the paint. In addition, Indiana hopes that their internal pressure prevents the Heat penetrators from getting off a clean pass, which gives time to the Pacers to rotate defensively once the ball returns to the perimeter. In this circumstance, Miami loses faith in their dribble penetration and resorts to jump shots in order to spread the floor. This is exactly the trap the Pacers want Miami to fall into, which is why they attained a 15-point lead in the third quarter.
While the Pacers rely heavily on their interior defense, they also depend primarily on their post offense against a smaller opponent like Miami. The Heat attempt to prevent Indiana’s strategy from coming into fruition by executing effective ball denial defense against West and Hibbert. Anderson, James, Bosh, and Battier all ensure passes to their respective men will not be clean. So once the post up is taken away, the Indiana offense becomes flustered. They struggle to obtain any opportunities through their minimal off-ball movement since James and Wade are extraordinary perimeter defenders. This leads to forced, contested jump shots or unsuccessful penetration for the Pacers. When they attempt to gain some wiggle room, Indiana’s guards run the pick and roll. The Heat choose to double the ball handler just like the Pacers, but Miami instills their double team immediately and thus traps the ball handler outside of the perimeter since they perceive the guard as the bigger threat. The Pacer big who set the screen is open, but fifteen to seventeen feet away from the hoop. Instead of rotating on to the open Pacer, the three Miami defenders stay with their man to prevent ball movement and Indiana from getting a better look. In the second quarter of the second game, Luis Scola received several looks from this but was unable to knock down enough jump shots to make Miami reconsider their defensive strategy.
With both defenses seemingly indestructible, a few wild cards exist that could swing the fortune in one team’s direction. For Miami, they need to deviate from their half court offense and live in the fast break. Indiana has coughed up the ball an average 18.5 times against their arch nemesis, which resulted in a mean of 19.5 points off turnovers. For as stellar as the Pacers’ half court defense is, their production is somewhat wasted by the offense’s inefficiency and tendency to give away the ball. One other wild card is the Heat’s approach to force Hibbert to the perimeter by having Anderson or Bosh navigate around the three-point line, while Miami tries to attack the post on the other side with James or Wade. Just like in Indiana’s pick and roll defense, Hibbert cheats off his man and attempts to stay close to the paint. The success of this play also relies on James’ and Wade’s potent post games. With a quick enough move, they can either drain an easy lay up or get hacked by a late Hibbert.
For Indiana, it’s simple: can Paul George make enough plays for the Indiana offense to stay afloat? It’s a superstar’s responsibility to bail his team out of stagnant, ineffective half court offensive possessions. But life has been challenging for him while the 4-time NBA MVP has guarded him. George shot 3 for 9 and obtained a mere six points while James defended him, but was 5 for 7 with seventeen points with anybody else on him. George will need to discover better opportunities against James for his middling offense to keep above water.
With only one other team in the Eastern Conference above .500, it becomes more and more difficult every day to envision an Eastern Conference Finals without both Indiana and Miami. Thus with nine remaining match ups between the two (a seven game series is imminent), there will be plenty of chances to see how both sides’ respective chess moves play out. But patience is necessary, as March 26 is the next time the Heat and Pacers take swings at each other once again.