The minds behind Ball Don’t Lie are going to preview each of the parings in the third round, with Kelly Dwyer going against character for a more genial take, Dan Devine bringing his inimitable mixture of both order and bedlam, along with Eric Freeman’s legendary look inside the reputations of some of the series’ key fixtures.
We continue with the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers.
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Kelly Dwyer’s Guide Vocal
This isn’t Indiana’s prime-time introduction. The team enjoyed that moment last year, squaring off with the eventual champion Heat in the second round, and took in some increased Q ratings this year while matched with the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Pacers have boasted All-Stars in consecutive years, they’ve been battling on a national stage since giving the Chicago Bulls a bit of a fright in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, and the team entered 2012-13 expecting to take the division crown.
This is no time for upstarts. The Pacers are expected to compete on the Heat’s level, and they cannot blame Danny Granger’s absence nor a lack of recognition for anything that goes pear-shaped between now and the end of the series. “Us against the world” won’t work, here. Savoring underdog status and moral victories won’t get this team anywhere. The Pacers cannot be content to “get it down below 10” just before the half. Behind their all-world defense, the Pacers are a Finals-level team that needs to play as such.
Too bad they have to play the Heat now.
They’ve played them before, these Pacers, and played them well. Indiana famously took a 2-1 series lead in last year’s second round against Miami. The Pacers have grabbed two of three from the Heat during the regular season, and I rank March’s home Heat win over Indiana as perhaps the most impressive of the Heat’s 27-game regular-season winning streak. Indiana’s ability to pack the lane and defend the wings should give Miami fits, just as long as the typical Heat frustrations decline to show up.
If you’re a fan of any other team but the Heat, you know those frustrations. You’ve gritted your teeth when LeBron James draws another foul on the frontcourt — that’s the first brow-furrower. Then, a few plays later, you’ve felt your stomach drop any time the ball swings around a few times, and then you remember that, yes, Chris Bosh still plays for the Heat.
Oh, crap. Bosh, too.
This is why Bosh’s presence will be of paramount importance. The Heat big man has enjoyed a light and breezy postseason, averaging 13.2 points and 8.3 boards (with two blocks) per game in nine playoff contests, but he’ll be asked to act as the counter to a Pacers attack that seems specially made to shut down high-usage wing types like LeBron and Dwyane Wade. Bosh doesn’t even have to keep up his 46.7 percent 3-point shooting in the series. All he has to do is finish broken plays and improvised passes with accurate shooting on long 2-point shots and the occasional home run. He has to stay on the court, and screen well for corner 3-point shooters. He has to remind us that he still plays for the Heat until the surprise goes away.
That, and James’ continued brilliance (and he will continue to play brilliantly even against Paul George … right?), will be enough to top the Pacers. Indiana’s attack is more refined and superior to the one that downed Miami twice in the regular season earlier this year — one has to account for in-season growth from this young crew — but the squad’s scoring issues remain a frightful proposition. It’s going to be tough enough for Indiana to hold Miami to the 90 points necessary to have a chance. It’s going to be even tougher for the Pacers to score 91 points and pull off a win.
Miami has been challenged in this postseason. The Milwaukee Bucks may have come off as lame ducks and the Chicago Bulls presented an on-paper roster that shouldn’t have made it out of the lottery, but this Heat squad had to pay attention defensively against Milwaukee, and struggle against an intense Bulls team that just didn’t take any possessions off — even when those possessions ended with an airball.
Miami’s rhythm may not be in step — the team will tip off a full week after downing the Bulls, a series that started up eight days after Miami dispatched Milwaukee. A 10-games-in-32-days schedule, with Game 1 sparking up on Wednesday, is not ideal. As we saw in the Chicago series, though, the Heat tend to lock back into that ideal once the sweat hits the brow. And Erik Spoelstra’s crew knows that this is their best chance to smarten up before the class of the West hits the Finals.
Indiana will push them, first. And in a 2012-13 season that has been all about the defending champs, that’s all we can ask.
PREDICTION: Heat in 6.
Contribute to the Chaos with Dan Devine
For as much as we try to study and analyze every aspect of NBA life these days, in every playoff series, there are unpredictable elements — a player, a tendency, a set, a decision, etc. — that can tilt a moment on its ear, change the complexion of a game or even determine the outcome of a series. For each matchup during this postseason, Dan Devine will look for those X-factors most likely to wreak havoc over the next seven games.
(The phrase "Contribute to the chaos” comes from the song “Twin Size Mattress” by the band The Front Bottoms, which Dan likes a lot.)
Miami Heat: Choke them out and turn them over.
Early in the season, the Heat struggled some on defense while integrating new pieces, most notably Ray Allen, who’s still a sharpshooter but isn’t exactly a lockdown artist. After their game on Feb. 1 — which, as luck would have it, was a loss to these self-same Pacers — they ranked 11th in the NBA in points allowed per possession, just above the Golden State Warriors. Very good, but not great. Not championship level.
As you might remember, Miami started a pretty good little run after that loss, winning 27 straight games; they’ve now taken 45 of their last 48. (LeBron James didn’t play in one of those three losses.) Much of the credit belongs to best-in-the-league offensive execution and point production led by league MVP James, but ramped-up commitment to shutting down opposing offenses has been huge, too. Miami posted the league’s fourth-stingiest defense after Feb. 2 and its best after March 1, and has continued to improve in the postseason, allowing a playoff-low 93.4 points per 100 possessions through the first two rounds.
Granted, Miami wasn’t exactly playing offensive juggernauts in the Milwaukee Bucks (21st in offensive efficiency this year) and Chicago Bulls (24th, and missing key pieces Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich in Round 2). But they’re not facing one here, either.
Yes, the Pacers have good individual offensive pieces in first-time All-Star Paul George, low-post bruisers David West and Roy Hibbert, and steady (and apparently OK) point guard George Hill. And yes, shooting guard Lance Stephenson is fresh off the game of his life, a 25-point, 10-rebound effort to eliminate the New York Knicks. And yes, the Pacers largely righted their early-season offensive woes down the stretch, ranking 11th in points per possession after the All-Star break.
Still: The Pacers are short on talented passers, reliable long-range shooters and quick decision-makers. Their explosive wing players have somewhat shaky handles. Their bench boasts no real offensive game-changers ... or, at least, none who can change the game in a positive way. (Unless you consider Tyler Hansbrough’s ability to get fouled “game-changing,” which it sometimes is.)
That much has been evident in the playoffs, where Indy’s late-season gains have largely dissipated — they're back down to averaging just a tick over one point per possession, worst of the final four teams, on 42 percent shooting from the field and a 30.8 percent mark from 3-point range. Their offense at times fell apart against even the Knicks’ scattershot defense, especially in the fourth quarter of Game 2 and without Hill to steer the ship in Game 5, as New York’s guards trapped screen and rolls, pressured Pacers ball-handlers and forced turnovers by the truckload. They’ve coughed it up on 17.4 percent of their possessions in the playoffs, worst of the four remaining teams.
The Heat’s defense — to put it mildly — is better, scarier and more dangerous than the Knicks’. Miami’s forcing turnovers on 17.6 percent of opponents’ possessions this postseason, which would’ve topped the Los Angeles Clippers for the NBA’s best turnover rate this year. They’re cashing in, too, scoring 19 points per playoff game off those turnovers.
With the waves of defenders they can throw at Indiana’s unsure ball-handlers — not only All-Defensive First-Teamer James and post-defending irritant Battier, but quick and rangy guard stoppers Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, a long-armed and more-defensively-active-than-during-the-season Chris Bosh, and pick-and-roll-grinding big men Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen — the Heat are well positioned to be able to blow up Indiana’s sets and force the Pacers to have to make quick (and often bad) decisions. That might not always translate into transition opportunities — the Heat averaged just 4.3 fast-break points per game against the Pacers this season, far below their 11.9-per-game average. Even if it doesn’t, though, Miami will likely be glad to have gummed up Indy’s works, because I doubt they believe that even the Pacers’ awesome D can return the favor enough to beat them four times.
Indiana Pacers: Keep them in midrange as much as humanly possible.
The overhaul of Miami’s offensive identity began in earnest after Bosh went down in last year’s second-round matchup between these two teams. Instead of more traditional two-big lineups with James slotting in at small forward, we saw LeBron shifted up to the four and more minutes for Battier, a change in configuration that put shooters all over the floor and forced defenses to choose between converging on the world’s best player close to the basket or leaving dangerous “floor spacers” open on the perimeter. Whichever way defenders went, they were likely giving up one of the highest-percentage or most valuable shots on the floor.
It worked out pretty well, as Miami rode a wave of 3s to last year’s NBA title. Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra and company doubled-down on the philosophy this season, with shots at the rim and from 3-point range accounting for more than two-thirds (67.1 percent) of Heat field-goal attempts on their run to the league’s best record. That number’s dipped a bit during the postseason, but Miami’s still taking 64.4 percent of its shots either right at the tin or from beyond the arc. In the Pacers, though, Miami faces a defense specifically designed to cut out such shots.
Anyone uncertain of the Pacers’ 3-ball-eliminating bona fides need only look at Indy’s six-game snuffing of the Knicks. And while any major Boeheim will tell you that New York and Miami are two different animals, Indiana was pretty successful in three regular-season meetings with the Heat, too — Miami attempted just 15.7 3-pointers per game against Indiana this season, nearly 5 1/2 fewer than their season average. That included a sharp curtailing of Miami’s favorite shot, the short-corner 3-pointer; the Heat fired a league-leading 8.8 per game during the regular season, but managed just 6.3 per game against Indiana.
The dampening effect didn’t just come downtown, either. With strong perimeter defenders George, Stephenson and Hill playing sound man-to-man defense outside and funneling everything into 7-foot-2 floater-forcer Hibbert, the share of shots the Heat attempted at the rim plummeted. For the season as a whole, nearly 39 percent of all Miami field-goal attempts came right at the basket; against Indy, that dropped to just over 30 percent.
If a team’s not taking shots at the rim or from behind the arc, then they’re shooting from in-between, and that’s just fine with Indiana. The Pacers love letting opponents prove they’ve rediscovered The Lost Art Of The Midrange Jumper, and in their first two meetings this season, Miami couldn’t do it, shooting a combined 16 for 49 (32.7 percent) on midrange shots in two losses. There were, of course, other reasons why they lost — Indy getting 23 second-chance points on 22 offensive rebounds in the first, barely-there Miami interior defense allowing the Pacers to shoot nearly 78 percent at the rim in the second — but that’s the big one. Indiana’s defense was able to prevent Miami’s offense from getting the kinds of looks it’s intended to generate, and the Heat couldn’t knock down enough of what Indy allowed to make up the difference.
They can make up the difference, though. In the third meeting, Indiana again got the shot selection it wanted, with Miami taking as many midrange shots as at-rim and 3-point attempts combined ... and the Heat still won by 14, going 17 for 31 from midrange and 12 for 21 on long 2-pointers, with Bosh scoring 19 of his 24 points outside the paint. (The matchup between Bosh, an elite midrange shooter who keys Miami’s O in part by drawing opposing bigs out of the lane, and Hibbert, who keys Indy’s D by serving as the magnet toward which all penetration is drawn for erasure, will be huge.)
Still, just because Miami’s good enough to do something doesn’t mean it’s good strategy. If the Pacers’ starters can avoid foul trouble, log big minutes and keep the sheer volume of best-case-scenario Heat looks as low as possible, as they did during the regular season, their chances of beating Miami go up immensely.
PREDICTION: Heat in 5.
Eric Freeman’s Reputations Index
An NBA athlete can make great strides in the offseason, improve over the course of the 82-game schedule, and see his fortunes change due to a freak injury. Yet, even in a league where granular analysis reveals untold nuances in a single player’s game, the postseason still determines his legacy. A star can become a legend or be seen as lacking some necessary quality to win; a role player can lock down a lucrative local endorsement contract or search for a new home; a youngster can ascend to a new level of fame or fall into irrelevance. The Reputations Index is your guide to what’s at stake in each postseason series.
LeBron James: The NBA belongs to James, yet, as of this moment, the playoffs have not. With the Heat facing inferior competition on the way to the conference finals, LeBron has been content to put up solid numbers (which most players would kill for, obviously) as the team goes about its business. James certainly hasn’t been unimpressive, but it’s pretty clear that he hasn’t needed to exert himself very much.
That’s fine, but also a little disappointing. LeBron is the incandescent talent of his era, and an NBA in which he’s not operating at peak efficiency is less interesting than it could otherwise be. In a postseason already identifiable as disappointing for the absence of several injured stars, fans can be forgiven for wanting to see the best player in the world dominate his foes. That godlike greatness is why so many people care about LeBron in the first place.
It’s possible that the Heat don’t need James to operate at this level to win this series, or even the title. But the logic of what’s necessary doesn’t always deter the desire to see something special. No one wants a generationally amazing player to withhold certain aspects of his genius. In order to achieve his full potential as global icon and — hell, I’ll just use the term we all dance around when it comes to James — divinely ordained king of basketball, he must show us everything he can do on the grandest stage. We’re now near that point. If he doesn’t, then he’s just the best player in the sport.
Dwyane Wade: At the beginning of the postseason, I argued that Wade is at a crossroads in his career, at which he could continue to be known as one of the best players in the league or settle into a position as a star whose alliance with a perennial MVP has rendered him significantly less dynamic than he once was. So far, the results are mixed — Wade was essential to Miami’s series-clinching win over Chicago but has averaged only 13 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting over eight games.
As has been the case with LeBron, those stats can be explained partly by the basic fact that Miami hasn’t needed its stars to take over very often. Nevertheless, it may be the case that they don’t need James and Wade to dominate particularly often, and when they do it’s likely that LeBron will be the one to take on most responsibilities. Through no major fault of his own, Wade could be thrust into a situation where he’s not expected to put up star numbers to lift the Heat to the third championship of his career. It goes against everything we’re told to believe about the NBA, but Wade could be the rare star who becomes less impactful as he does everything asked of him to help his team to a title.
Paul George: Although his shooting percentages don’t exactly jump off the stat sheet, George’s postseason has already been a success. After his All-Star selection this season, the Pacers’ achievements reflect well on George, as well, even if he hasn’t been the prime mover in each of Indiana’s two series wins. He’ll get attention because he scores — 19.1 points per game in serious minutes — plays excellent (and loud) defense, and presents a useful narrative for this season.
The challenge of this series is altogether different — as a small forward, George’s production will be presented in relation to that of LeBron regardless of how often the two guard each other. It’d take a serious leap up in quality for George to best James in a series, to the point where he’s unlikely to be the difference maker in this series because of his offense. In other words, George has probably reached his peak reputation level for the postseason barring a shocking Indiana upset. Yet his performance in this series will present a baseline for growth next season and beyond. We’ll learn “what he has accomplished” and apply it to all future endeavors.
George Hill: This winter, in the long ago, Hill was defined largely in terms of whom he was traded for in 2011 rather than by his own perfectly acceptable production for the Pacers. As a key member of the altogether more championship-ready San Antonio Spurs, Kawhi Leonard has become a favorite of Internet and old-school types alike. Meanwhile, Hill is the player he’s been for several seasons: a capable scorer with limited but still quite present playmaking skills.
In these playoffs, though, Hill has proven his importance to the Pacers, both by putting up several impressive shooting displays and in his glaring absence while out with a concussion for the Game 5 loss to the Knicks. Hill is a key ball-handler and shooter for the Pacers, who will need a varied scoring attack to keep pace with Miami. This series is a chance to announce he’s worthy of challenging the best players in the league, either in victory or defeat.