Too Big, Too Strong, and Too Good

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Make no mistake about it. The Indiana Pacers are for real. As the big-market obsessed basketball world learned last night, this Pacers team is highly skilled, well-balanced, extremely tough, and now 2-1 up in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

Game 3 was vindication for all those hardcore basketball fans who have spent time watching this team on NBA League Pass, or various illegal internet streams—waxing lyrical about how dangerous they could be come playoff time. Larry Bird, Frank Vogel and the Indianapolis faithful have known this for months, of course. The Miami Heat are quickly coming to realize it themselves.

Last night, the overlooked, underdog Pacers walloped the championship favourites 94-75. It was the second straight game that the Heat have been restricted to just 75 points. Unlike Game 2, however, Indiana coupled their suffocating defense with a deadly low-post oriented offense, resulting in a near perfect all-round performance.

The Heat, thanks largely to LeBron James and Mario Chalmers (a singular highlight for Miami), played some decent basketball in the 1st quarter, after being blitzed early, but were slowed down in the 2nd. The Pacers blew the game wide open in the second half, restricting Miami to just 12 points in the 3rd, while racking up 26 themselves. With two minutes left in the game, after another dominant quarter from Indiana, the benches were emptied and we were all reminded that Juwan Howard still plays professional basketball.

To sum it up succinctly: the Pacers were great, the Heat were atrocious—and Ladies and Gentlemen, we have quite a playoff series on our hands.

Showing the Pacers Some Love

As sure as the sun will rise, the next few days will see the Miami Heat-obsessed media circling around the carcass of another extremely sub-par Heat performance—picking apart what went wrong. LeBron’s second half disappearing act, Dwyane Wade’s lack of any appearance at all, and tensions between Wade and Erik Spoelstra, will all be hot topics of discussion.

As bad as the Heat were, however, it would be a major injustice to gloss over all the great things that the Indiana Pacers did in Game 3, the majority of which started, and ended, with their all-star centre Roy Hibbert.

Hibbert finally broke out and dominated on the big stage. It was domination that everyone knew the big centre was capable of, but hadn’t witnessed up to this point. Hibbert had a huge game at both ends of the floor—finishing with 19 points, 18 rebounds and 5 blocks. It was the kind of performance that made you want to break out your best Hubie Brown impersonation, and shout, ever-so-condescendingly: “There you go Roy!”

Coming up against a small, and very limited Miami Heat frontcourt, it was a display that Frank Vogel would’ve been demanding from his big man. Hibbert didn’t disappoint. He was aggressive from the start, posting up surprise starter Dexter Pittman (a desperation selection from Spoelstra) and destroying him offensively. Hibbert controlled the glass at both ends, pulling down 5 offensive rebounds, and generally turning the paint into his own personal playground.

Without Bosh, who I’ll get to later, Miami’s frontcourt looked badly exposed. It continues to be a massive concern for the Heat in this series. Spoelstra can try any combination of Ronny Turiaf, Joel Anthony and Dexter Pittman, but none of his big men can guard Hibbert. At 7’2”, he’s simply too big and too skilled to contain down on the block.

Hibbert’s teammates gave him ample support last night. That was reflected by the fact that 4 out of the 5 Indiana starters hit double figures (Paul George had 9).

Danny Granger had his best game of the series and George Hill caught fire from beyond the arc. While Miami have struggled in these playoffs to get anything out of guys not named LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Indiana once again underlined how balanced they are in the scoring department.

The Pacers were clicking on offense, but it was their defense that ultimately won them the game. Hibbert controlled the glass and did his best Dikembe Mutombo impression (minus the finger wag), swatting the ball to all corners of the floor. Granger once again did a fine job of guarding LeBron, making him work for everything, while Paul George used his length to help send Wade into a complete shooting funk from start to finish.

And quite the funk it was.

Miami’s Got Problems

Wade went 2 of 13 from the field, finishing the night with just 5 points. It’s hard to remember a worse shooting performance from Wade in the playoffs. Last night, the 2006 Finals MVP looked like a shadow of himself. His shots clanged off the front of the rim, he turned the ball over, appeared sluggish, and was lazy getting back on defense. At one stage during a Miami timeout, a visibly frustrated Wade had to be separated from his coach, who was giving him a lecture on the finer points of shooting the basketball (or something like that). It was ugly all around.

Entering Game 3, all the discussion was about Miami’s role players picking up some of the scoring slack, in order to take the pressure off LeBron and Wade. Ironically the Heat finally got that much-needed secondary scoring, with Mario Chalmers posting a career high 25 points. Chalmers was active from the opening tip, driving to the basket constantly and keeping the Heat in the game during the 1st half. Given Wade’s dismal display, however, Chalmers’ efforts were largely wasted.

Wade’s struggles, and Miami’s scoring woes in general, once again emphasize how important and underappreciated Chris Bosh is to this Heat team.

It’s really easy, and somewhat enjoyable, to make fun of Bosh. He’s a 6’11” power forward that doesn’t do much in the paint, seems soft, settles for 18-foot jumpers, and looks a little like a dinosaur. But Bosh is essential to the Heat’s offense.

His shooting spreads the floor and allows LeBron and Wade space to drive to the basket. The other team knows they can’t over commit and leave him open to hit that mid-range shot. That range draws his opposing big man away from the basket, opening up the paint for everyone else.

On most nights he may seem like a third wheel, finishing with his typically quiet 15-18 points. But the fact remains; those points are essential to a team that gets absolutely nothing from its bench. Without Bosh in the lineup, all the pressure is on the ‘Big Two’. If one of those guys goes ice cold, as Wade did last night, scoring becomes a major problem for the Heat.


Looking Ahead

On the evidence of the last two games, Miami has all sorts of major problems in this series. Ahead of Game 4 on Sunday, which the Heat absolutely cannot afford to lose, Spoelstra and his team have a lot to try and figure out. Miami must find a way to slow down Indiana’s frontcourt, Hibbert in particular. At the same time they need to get their bench involved, and start making some 3-point shots, which they can’t hit right now if their lives depended on it.

As for Wade and James; as great as the Indiana defense has been in containing them up to this point, don’t expect it to last into Game 4. Both superstars are more than capable of breaking out and dropping 35-40 points, however tight the defense is.

Wade, in particular, will be nursing a badly bruised ego after last night’s showing, and will look to come out guns-a-blazing on Sunday. In truth, the Miami Heat will be in big BIG trouble if he doesn’t.

Without Chris Bosh, and facing a combative, gritty, Pacers team with a big old chip on their shoulder, nothing short of a massive performance for Wade and LeBron in Game 4 will do for the Heat.

It they come up short again, this Pacers’ team will happily send them back to South Beach on the brink of a shocking playoff elimination.

 
 
Zach Salzmann is an avid follower of the NBA. When he is not watching basketball, much to the annoyance of his girlfriend, he is watching something else sports-related.

Follow him on Twitter. 

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