Irresistible Force Meets Immovable Object

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It’s almost a year to the day that LeBron James produced one of the greatest playoff performances in NBA history. No, I’m not referring to his Game 6 masterpiece at the Boston Garden—although that was stunning too. The game in question was Game 4 of the Heat-Pacers series—a game in which the Heat, on the road, and trailing 2-1, simply had to win. James, as he did so often last year, willed his team to victory, finishing with 40 points, 18 rebounds, and 9 assists. It proved to be the turning point as the Heat won the next two games comfortably to close out the Pacers in six.

Before James’ Magic Johnson impersonation, the odds seemed stacked against Miami. The Pacers had beaten up the Heat on the boards through the first 3 games, a problem that was greatly exacerbated when Chris Bosh went down with an injury after Game 1—an injury that would keep him out for the rest of the series. Ronny Turiaf started at centre in Game 4—the same Ronny Turiaf that was recently behind Lamar Odom and Ryan Hollins in the Clippers big-man rotation. Dwyane Wade looked like he was playing on one leg (not much has changed there), tensions were running high, and the media vultures were gleefully circling around what they believed to be the Miami Heat’s carcass. But the Heat’s obituary was prematurely written, as it would be after Game 5 of the Celtics series, and again, after Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

Regardless of how the series turned out, however, the Pacers gave the Heat an almighty scare. For the first half of the series they exposed Miami’s weakness on the boards and in the paint—underlining Bosh’s value in the process—and it took a miracle game from LeBron to prevent the Heat from falling into a major hole. Starting Wednesday night we’ll get to see if Indiana can move beyond simply scaring the Heat—can they do more than win a couple of games and provide a competitive tune-up before San Antonio or Memphis in the Finals? We’ll see if they can actually knock off the reigning champions and current favourites, and reach only their second NBA Finals in franchise history.

How the Pacers can win

Only two teams have a winning record against the Heat this season. One of those teams, the New York Knicks, have now gone fishing (although J.R. Smith’s more of a golf kind of guy), and the other, responsible for sending that team fishing, are the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers took the season series against the Heat, 2-1—impressive given that the Heat only lost 16 games all year—and in those games they outrebounded the Heat, 122-81. Their ability to dominate on the glass is where the Pacers continue to have the biggest advantage over the Heat.

Simply put, the Indiana Pacers are a BIG basketball team. But whereas some teams have size and do little with it, the Pacers play big and maximize their physical advantages. This was fully on display against the Knicks, whom the Pacers absolutely annihilated on the boards—particularly on the offensive glass—and dominated in the paint. Their domination down low revolves around the behemoth that is Roy Hibbert.

Hibbert had his moments in last season’s series against Miami, until the Heat decided to front him and prevent him from even touching the ball. But the 2013 Roy Hibbert is a much improved version. Defensively he’s scary—using every inch of his 7’2’’ frame to protect the rim, but brilliantly doing so without fouling—and on offense his game has come on leaps and bounds. He destroyed Tyson Chandler at that end of the floor and whomever the Heat decide to throw at him in this series—be it Bosh, Udonis Haslem, or Chris Anderson—they’re going to be in for a tough time.

The Heat, despite the extremely useful acquisition of the aforementioned Birdman, and the effectiveness of playing LeBron at the 4 against most NBA teams, remain vulnerable to teams with real size, who play an inside-out game. The Pacers, with Hibbert, David West at power-forward, and Ian Mahinmi giving them useful minutes off the bench, are built to expose that vulnerability.

While Indiana’s post defense is formidable, the fact that they were the best defensive team in the NBA during the regular season had a lot to do with their perimeter defense too. Paul George, the NBA’s Most Improved Player, is still a work in progress offensively, but he’s already one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. And Lance Stephenson, who last year spent more time making juvenile choke gestures, than actually playing, has made a huge leap this year. His 25-point Game 6 effort against New York was evidence of that.

With Stephenson, George, and point-guard George Hill, able to guard their man one-on-one, the Pacers rarely have a need to double-team. That’s a big reason why they’re so great at preventing open 3s—a shot that Miami lives on. And when George or Stephenson are beaten off the dribble, they’re fantastic at forcing the ball-handler into the help defense—often West or Hibbert. With Indiana so adept at shutting down the opposition’s perimeter players, the health of Wade is of major concern. He’s capable of scoring against any defender, but if he continues to be 60% healthy, Stephenson’s going to make his life miserable.

With the improvement of Hibbert, George, and Stephenson, the Pacers are undoubtedly a better team than they were a year ago, but unfortunately for them, so are the Miami Heat.

Why the Heat WILL win

The Indiana Pacers, statistically at least, are one of the best defensive teams of all time. The Miami Heat, however, have one of the best, most efficient offenses the NBA has ever seen. The Heat, as many experts have remarked this season, just seem to have figured out offense. Rarely do you see the Heat take contested mid-range jumpers—it’s corner 3s, lay-ups, and dunks for Spoelstra’s team. If any team is going to be able to crack the Pacers’ stifling defense it’s the Miami Heat.

In this series the Heat will look to exploit three major advantages they have over the Pacers. Firstly, although Bosh may struggle against the size of Hibbert and West on defense, offensively he’s a major x-factor for Miami. Not only can Bosh comfortably make an 18-foot jumper, but he now seems to have added 3-point range to his arsenal. Bosh’s outside shooting threat will force either West or Hibbert away from the basket, and should open up driving lanes for LeBron, Wade, and Mario Chalmers. The Pacers didn’t have to worry about Bosh after Game 1 of last year’s series, but he’ll be a major headache this time around.

The second way that Miami can exploit Indiana’s defense is through their tempo. When the Knicks had success against Indiana it was through pushing the basketball—not allowing Indiana’s near-impenetrable half-court defense to get set. The Heat, with the likes of Norris Cole, Chalmers, Wade, and of course, LeBron, have the personnel to run the floor and keep Indiana’s big-men back-peddling, and off balance.

Lastly, the Heat just have numerous options on offense. If Carmelo didn’t score for New York they were in trouble. The Heat, other the other hand, have scoring everywhere you look. LeBron can drop 35 on any given night, but so can Bosh and Wade. Norris Cole proved in the Bulls series that he can hit from the outside and score in the lane; and in Ray Allen and Shane Battier, the Heat have players who can get hot from beyond the arc and do some major damage.

In contrast, offense can be a major chore for the Pacers. In Games 2 and 5 against the Knicks they looked woeful at that end, and they had their struggles in the Atlanta series too. At times they got out of rhythm and settled for contested jumpers instead of going inside to their strengths. One way to beat Miami—as the Knicks proved in the regular season—is to hit 3s, but the Pacers aren’t a great outside shooting team. It’s a safe bet that Miami will try to clog the paint and force Indiana to take outside shots.

And while the Pacers themselves are a fantastic defensive team, the Heat are no slouches either. In LeBron James they have one of the best defenders in the game today—a guy who can defend positions 1 through 4. Indiana will continue to lean on Paul George for scoring (he didn’t shoot well in the New York series) but having to guard LeBron one-on-one may take a lot out of him and leave him flat on offense. And unlike Heat, the Pacers’ bench is woeful, and can’t be relied upon to score if their starters go cold—there’s way too much Sam Young, D.J. Augustin, and Tyler Hansbrough for anyone’s liking.

Prediction

The Pacers are an elite defensive team and have the ability to keep every game in this series close because of that. If they can exploit Miami down low, and if Wade continues to struggle, they have an outside chance to upset the champs. But the Heat are elite both defensively and offensively, and they just have too many weapons for a team that relies so much on it’s 5-man unit to win games—Indiana just doesn’t have a bench. Usually the team with the best player in the series wins, and LeBron is the best player in ANY series. If you also factor in Miami’s home-court advantage—the Pacers aren’t great on the road—all signs point to a 3rd straight NBA Finals for the Heat. Indiana will make it interesting, but Miami prevails in 6.

 

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