Much of the noise emanating from the Miami Heat’s Game 1 win over the Indiana Pacers had to do with Pacer coach Frank Vogel’s curious removal of perhaps the best defender on the court, for either team, for two crucial defensive possessions in overtime.
That noise is the correct noise. It’s true that the Miami Heat space the floor expertly, and that LeBron James is just as adept at dishing to an open (ish) Ray Allen or Chris Bosh as he is at covering 24 feet in 2.2 seconds, but that’s not the point. The point is for Chris Bosh or Ray Allen to take the shot. Fabulous options, both, but far better options for the Pacers in that instance than LeBron James and an uncontested lay-up. Hibbert guarded Chris Bosh expertly on the possessions that preceded that embarrassing run for Vogel, and while the center’s presence can’t be counted on to call off a Heat score as a certainty or cinch, it certainly would have given Miami a far tougher look than it had.
Throughout the dogged 52 minutes and 38 seconds of basketball that worked itself into a sweat before Hibbert’s benching, the Heat had about as tough a look as it could handle. It’s true that the Bucks played Miami well at times and Chicago had a good chance to win in two of the contests beyond its Game 1 win in the conference semis, but Indiana managed to play the best basketball of any team we’ve seen take Miami in since winter only because their style can be counted on. To a game, Chicago may have played Miami better in its regular and postseason victories over Miami, but Indiana gets the nod because it knows it can improve and be right there with a team they’ve split a 2-2 regular and postseason series with.
What we’re discounting though, in the midst of all this Thursday morning coach-cracking, is the defending champions’ ability to improve. As Miami has proven over the last 12 months, they’re still a team on the make. They may have won the title last year and peeled off 27 wins in a row this season, but they’re still determining just how great they can be. Still trying to take advantage of farthest reaches of LeBron’s brilliance, or the depths of Dwyane Wade’s tolerance for pain. Still figuring out what to do with all those highly capable rotation parts. Still realizing, every few plays, that “oh yeah, we have Chris Bosh.”
Miami is allowed to improve, too.
They’re allowed to find new ways for Dwyane Wade to roam away from the ball. Wade had a sound performance in Game 1, finding his way to 19 points on 15 shots before fouling out, but even up against Indiana’s fantastic wing defenders it was apparent that he was capable of so much more. Things could change in the 48 hours between games, but by the looks of this flickering TV it appears as if Wade’s hops are back.
They’re allowed to figure out a way to utilize Bosh, who had his moments down the stretch and was the main reason Hibbert stayed glued to the bench in Miami’s final two offensive possessions, but overall he seemed capable of so much more than being an offensive afterthought on his way toward 17 points.
They’re allowed to figure out a way to make Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier more comfortable with their spot up attempts. Battier did not seem shaken in Game 1, but Haslem was clearly pressing down the stretch with his jumper, and both combined to miss nine of 10 attempts in the near-loss.
They’re allowed to figure out a way to feature young guard Norris Cole in Mario Chalmers’ possible absence (or limited role) due to injury. Cole had a miserable Game 1, missing three of four shots and turning the ball over four times in 28 minutes, but he’s had a fantastic and rather gutty postseason thus far, and certainly should be able to take advantage of George Hill and D.J. Augistin’s sometimes daffy play.
The Heat are also allowed to continue to take advantage of the gift that is Chris Andersen, a player that 15 other playoff teams are kicking themselves for not hiring midseason.
Andersen, obviously in his best shape of the season, managed 16 points, five rebounds, and three blocks in just 18 minutes of play in Game 1. Andersen provides a style of spacing in sharp contrast to Shane Battier (how odd is it to see those two polar opposites check in for one another in the lineup?) and Udonis Haslem’s long and midrange shooting. Chris’ cutting often provides a needed antidote to Indiana’s borderline zone-ish attack on defense.
And Miami is allowed to take advantage of LeBron James’ continued, scary, improvement.
This almost appears as if we’re discounting Indiana, and not crediting them for their fabulous play in limiting both the Heat’s stars and contributors to a one-point victory at home, spread out over 53 minutes. This is not the case. The Pacers could get swept in this series by a total of four points, or they could take things to six or even seven games. Indiana is that good, and so well-suited for Miami’s brand of ball.
Still, we have to understand that the defending champs aren’t a sitting target, a rock on a high perch just waiting to be knocked off by a sure shot. They’re gaining in knowledge and confidence just as the Indiana Pacers are. And it’s probable that, considering the stature of their opponent, we’ll see the best game of the Miami Heat’s glorious 2012-13 season in Game 2.