While the Miami Heat might not have played their best game yet in these 2013 playoffs, the Indiana Pacers know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they didn't play their best game in Wednesday's Eastern Conference finals opener, either — and they still came up just one remarkable play by LeBron James (and one arguably unwise decision by Pacers coach Frank Vogel) from scoring an upset overtime win that stripped home-court advantage away from the No. 1 overall seed. They were right there, and they think — they know — they can get there again.
Still, they've got some stuff to clean up in Friday night's Game 2 if they want to close the deal and send the series back to Indiana tied up with a chance to take a commanding lead at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Here are three areas where the Pacers must improve to come away with a win:
1. Slow the march to the front of the rim. In our series preview, I noted that the Pacers had done an excellent job during the regular season of keeping the Heat from feasting on shots from their favorite, and the most valuable, spots on the floor — the restricted area (the semicircle directly in front of the basket) and the 3-point arc, especially the shorter corners.
That's the centerpiece of the philosophy that made the Pacers the league's best defensive team this year — play tight D outside, don't give shooters space to rise and fire, stay true to your one-on-one assignments and close out like demons when you have to step away, offer help without over-helping and force drivers/pick-and-roll ball-handlers to have to pull up from midrange rather than meet 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert at the basket. It figured to be a critical element in the Pacers' attempt to overcome the Heat, and Indiana didn't do the best possible job of it in Game 1.
Well, the Pacers got it half right, at least. Indiana again did a strong job of shutting down the 3-point line, limiting Miami to 18 long-ball attempts (four fewer than their per-game regular-season average, 2 1/2 below their playoff mark) and only five makes. For the Pacers to have produced just three fewer points beyond the arc than the Heat did, given the vast gulf between the quality of shooters available to each side, was a pretty big Indy win. But then there's the not-half-right half: The Pacers struggled to keep the Heat out of the paint and prevent point-blank looks.
Thirty-six of Miami's 86 field-goal attempts (41.8 percent) came in the restricted area in Game 1, and the Heat made 26 of them. They rolled up 60 points in the paint, which would've topped the Denver Nuggets' NBA-best per-game regular-season mark and absolutely dwarfs what the Heat typically put up; they averaged 41.5 paint points per game during the season, and had dipped to 40.7 per game in the playoffs before Wednesday.
That the Heat went 26 for 36 in the restricted area (72.2 percent) isn't especially shocking given both the finishers Miami boasts and the team's track record on bunnies. They led the league with a 67.2 percent mark at the rim this season, shot a bit better (72.9 percent) against the Milwaukee Bucks in Round 1 and a bit worse (66.4 percent) against the Chicago Bulls in Round 2, and were similarly strong (64.5 percent) against a stout Indiana defense during the regular season. That they got there so often, though — that's the concern.
Because while Miami did do a fair amount of damage at the basket when Hibbert was off the floor — 12 of the 21 shots the Heat took during Hibbert's 12:03 of rest were in the restricted area, and they made nine — Erik Spoelstra's squad wasn't exactly shy about attacking when Hibbert played, either. Just under 37 percent of Miami's shots came in the restricted area while Hibbert was on the floor — a bit below the Heat's season average, but well above what Miami managed against the Pacers during the regular season — and they went 17 for 24 there. That tracks with what we saw during the regular season — the Heat shot at the rim less frequently and less successfully when Hibbert played, but they still went at him and hit better than 61 percent of their up-close looks against the big man.
All of which is to say: Yes, keeping Hibbert on the court to defend the paint as much as possible matters, but not nearly as much as keeping the Heat's perimeter players from getting there in the first place. That's easier said than done, of course, when those perimeter players include James and Dwyane Wade, and when — as NBA.com's John Schuhmann detailed — Miami found successful penetrating angles by targeting Indiana power forward David West in side pick-and-rolls, especially those directed toward the baseline.
Vogel is well aware of that, and reportedly spent the lion's share of the team's Thursday film session dedicated to emphasizing Indiana's need to "help the helper" and not allowing the integrity of the Pacers' team defense to become compromised on second and third rotations. How well Vogel's message filtered through to his players and how effectively he's been able to adjust his scheme to corral those screening actions will likely go a long way toward determining Indiana's chances of emerging from Miami with a split.
2. Take care of the ball, even if only a little bit. Again, this is something we talked about a bit in our series preview — Indiana's too loose with the ball too often, and Miami's too good at forcing too many turnovers for the Pacers to be able to survive chucking the ball all over the lot or being unmindful when handling. That largely held in Game 1, with Indiana turning the ball over on 20 percent of their offensive possessions and allowing 22 Miami points off those miscues.
It didn't come back to bite them too badly on Wednesday, though. That's due in part, as Schumann notes, to Miami managing only 11 fast-break points despite the Pacers posting nine live-ball turnovers. (That's a lot.) It also owes something to Miami's own carelessness with the rock, as the Heat balanced the scales somewhat by actually turning the ball over more frequently than the Pacers (20.6 percent of their possessions ended up going the other way) by committing a postseason-high 21 turnovers that led to 18 Pacers points. While Miami hasn't been the most careful bunch this postseason, expecting them to cough it up more than once in every five trips and expecting them not to capitalize when you give it up in the middle of the floor doesn't seem like an especially sound or reliable strategy.
A Pacers team piloted by trap-vulnerable point guards (hey there, George Hill and especially D.J. Augustin) and heavily reliant on the wing creativity of often-adventurous dribblers and passers (nice to see you, Paul George and Lance Stephenson) will never be the safest and most secure group; by now, we must accept that. But any reduction in unforced errors, ceded possessions and squandered opportunities will increase the Pacers' margin of error and put more pressure on Miami to play a cleaner game than they managed on Wednesday.
That is to say: Put your shooting shirts on and sit down, Guys on the Bench.
3. Get something — anything — from your starting backcourt. Hill and Stephenson had a rough time in Game 1, combining for just 12 points on 19 shots, turning the ball over seven times to mitigate their 10 total assists and shooting a combined 1 for 11 outside the paint, including 0 for 7 from 3-point range. Having two heavy-minute non-performing assets against an opponent as good as Miami is hard enough to overcome, but it's downright deadly when you get as little wing punch off the bench as Indiana does.
Some of those looks were contested jumpers, late-in-the-clock prayers or up-close tries taken directly in the mug of a shot-blocker, as most looks are against a swarming, octopus-armed Miami defense; it's understandable not to make those. But some were not — several times, either Hill or Stephenson got what passes for a clean look against the Heat, the result of quick decision-making and sharp ball movement, and just couldn't do anything with it. Stephenson's a bigger culprit than Hill here — on four separate occasions, he got a good look at a 3-pointer (in the right corner at about the 4:25 mark of the first quarter, on the right wing with 3:25 left in the second, in the right corner 3 with 9:15 remaining in the third quarter and on the right wing with 1:25 left in overtime) and came up empty on all of them.
Even one more make might've made a major difference in Indiana's game-long attempt at counterpunching. While neither Hill (36.8 percent from 3 during the season, 31.4 percent in the playoffs) nor Stephenson (33 percent and 23.9 percent, respectively) would be confused for marksmen, they have stepped into and made long-range shots for Vogel, and they will absolutely have to do some more of that when Indiana's able to swing the ball from the strong side of the floor to the weak side against Miami's overloading defensive scheme. If they can make Miami pay, even a couple of times, for loading up so heavily to take away David West's post-ups and George's driving room, their odds of finishing the job improve dramatically. If they can't, the noose figures to tighten on the Pacers' go-to offensive options, making an upset that much harder to achieve.