Posted May 16, 2014 11:34 AM
It was early December when an Eastern Conference finals rematch appeared inevitable. The Indiana Pacers were off to a 16-1 start, the Miami Heat were the defending champs, and the rest of the East was pretty awful.
A lot has happened (especially to the Pacers) since then. But here we are. Indiana and Miami -- the only two East teams that were ever considered title contenders -- are back in the conference finals. Your dreams of a Nets-Wizards matchup have been vanquished.
These two teams know each other too well. They've split their 14 meetings over the last two seasons, with the home team winning 12 of the 14.
"In terms of Xs and Os, we know who they are, they know who we are," the Pacers' David West said after his team closed out the conference semifinals in Washington. "It's going to come down to the details and who's able to impose their will, particularly on the defensive end."
The team that did that in last year's series was the Heat. They couldn't put two straight wins together, but completely shut down the Pacers' offense in Game 7 in Miami.
This year, Indiana has the home-court advantage that they worked so hard for. But home-court advantage has had no bearing on the first two rounds. The Pacers are just 3-4 at home in the playoffs, while the Heat are 3-1 on the road. More importantly, you never know what you're going to get from Indiana on any given night, no matter where they're playing. The Pacers survived the first two rounds, but have had a few stinkers along the way and continue to struggle offensively.
As poorly as they've played over the last few months, the Pacers did beat the Heat at home in late March. And with Paul George and Roy Hibbert, they have the defense that can slow down LeBron James and the champs.
The playoffs are about matchups more than momentum. And this matchup is still a fascinating one.
1. Will the Heat play small or big? Erik Spoelstra may choose to start Udonis Haslem instead of Shane Battier, like he did in these two teams' final regular-season meeting. Asking Battier to bang with West at this point in his career may be too much. He played just 3:15 in the last two regular-season meetings, and Miami has been successful (plus-20) in 84 minutes against the Pacers with two bigs on the floor. But the Heat might still play more minutes with just one big, staying true to their floor-spacing identity. Playing Chris Bosh at center could pull Roy Hibbert away from the basket, or make him pay for staying there.
2. Does Indiana have a bench this time? A little more than they had last time. In last year's conference finals, the Pacers were a plus-46 with their starting lineup on the floor and a minus-74 when any of the five starters went to the bench. Thus far in this postseason, there hasn't been nearly the same dropoff, mostly because the starters haven't been that great and because George has logged some major minutes (41.4 per game).
3. Is this where the Pacers miss Danny Granger? Yes. Against the Miami defense, you need weak-side shooters. In that regard, Granger was missed in last year's conference finals. But before the Pacers could get back, they traded him for Evan Turner, who isn't as willing to shoot from distance and who dribbles a lot. And against the Heat, you can't dribble a lot. The ball must move.
4. Is this the series the Heat signed Greg Oden for? Yes, but Oden has yet to play a minute in the postseason. He was on the active list for the Charlotte series, so Spoelstra was apparently ready to use him if needed. But the coach has three other bigs -- Bosh, Haslem and Chris Andersen -- that he's more likely to trust at this point. Oden could be active again (he was inactive for the Brooklyn series), but only for emergencies.
5. Will Frank Vogel leave Hibbert on the floor for a last-second defensive possession? Let's hope we find out. Of course, the dilemma that Vogel faced on the last possession of last year's Game 1 still exists. If he keeps Hibbert on the floor, he runs the risk of losing a shooter on the perimeter. If he takes him off, he's not protecting the rim.
Lance Stephenson will look for easy baskets in transition, which will be necessary to keep the Indiana offense afloat, because in the half-court, things will bog down. Only the Atlanta and Memphis offenses were less efficient than Indiana's has been in the playoffs. The one thing that the Pacers did well last season (and in the conference finals) -- grab offensive boards -- hasn't been a strength this year.
The Heat will hedge hard on pick-and-rolls, looking to pressure the Indiana ball-handlers and force turnovers. The key for the Pacers will be those ball-handlers getting rid of the ball quickly, so they can play 4-on-3 on the weak side. West will be asked to make plays from the top of the key and make shots from the wing when he pops out after setting a screen. The Pacers' weak-side perimeter shooting will be critical, but Hibbert will also get decent looks inside if the ball moves faster than Miami's rotations.
The Indiana defense starts with the Indiana offense. If the Pacers commit too many turnovers and allow the Heat to get out in transition, they're in trouble. But if they can limit the transition opportunities, nobody defends the champs better.
In the half-court, James will have the Pacers' full attention. They will hope that George can stay attached through screens, so that everyone else can (basically) stay at home and prevent open looks on the perimeter. Hibbert, of course, will look to protect the rim. Over the last two seasons, 41 percent of James' shots have come from the restricted area, but that number has been only 30 percent with Hibbert on the floor.
Despite their offensive issues, the Pacers had the league's second-best record (26-11, behind only 22-8 San Antonio) in games that were within five points in the last five minutes, in part because they were actually a good offensive rebounding team in clutch situations. The ball will be in George's hands, but West will get his opportunities to make plays and make shots as well.
James will have the ball for the Heat, who will run plenty of 3/1 or 3/2 pick-and-rolls, with Mario Chalmers and Ray Allen setting the screen and flaring to the 3-point line. That gives their defender a difficult decision: help on James or stick with the shooter? If James draws extra defenders, he's always willing to move the ball to the open man. Between the regular season and playoffs, Bosh is 17-for-35 from 3-point range in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime and a score differential (either way) of five points or less.
Normally, Hibbert's scoring should be looked at as gravy. But against the Heat, it's a needed component of the Indiana offense. Hibbert will get a chance to finish plays when the Miami bigs extend out to the perimeter. He's had some serious ups and downs over the last couple of months, but the Heat seem to bring out the best in him.
For the Heat, the time when James sits -- at the start of the second quarter and (sometimes) the start of the fourth -- is always critical. If Wade and the second unit can keep the offense afloat with a few baskets in those stretches, Miami will be in good shape.
If this series took place in December or January, the prediction would be different. But the Pacers still haven't fully regained their footing after their late-season collapse. And as we saw in Game 7 of this series last year and in the last round against Brooklyn, the champs know how to execute when they need to. Miami in 6.
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