Setting the Stage for HEAT vs. Pacers
This isn't going to be pretty.
This series isn't just about size vs. skill. It's not just the league's best offensive team against the best defensive team. It's about two teams with very different systems and philosophies trying to stop the other team from doing what it wants to do. It's about perpendicular, not parallel, lines. Collisions, not races. There will be dunks and threes and plenty of the remarkable, but there is always going to be someone in the way.
The Indiana Pacers can be summed up in a paragraph. Nobody holds opponents to a lower shooter percentage at the rim or in the corners than Frank Vogel's team. No team has a more deliberate inside-out offense, as the Pacers post-up more than anyone else in the league. There is no better two-way rebounding team than Indiana. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder played its starters more minutes, and only the Houston Rockets turned the ball over on more of its possessions.
That's the Pacers. Now let's take a closer look.
Indiana In the Post
19. That's how many post-ups the Pacers use per game, according to Synergy Sports, which is more than any other team. This doesn't even account for possessions that begin with a post-up, or when David West or Roy Hibbert pass out of a double team. That's 19 raw post-ups that end with a shot, turnover or a drawn foul – accounting for nearly 20 percent of Indiana's total approach. And the HEAT want to take this away from them.
Your typical Pacers possession looks something like this:
Three players out, two players in. A cross-screen establishes a post-up on the left block, with a weakside screen on the opposite elbow setting up a passing lane should the post-entry pass be denied or should the post draw a double, and then West is there to clean up the boards. If these actions don't create a shot, then they run a quick pick-and-roll with one of the bigs. It's simple stuff, but the Pacers want to run people over with that simplicity.
"They want to establish an inside-out attack and it's through their post up players that are very good," Erik Spoelstra said. "If you don't prepare for it and have a gameplan and a system and habits, they will absolutely pound you. And even if you do have all of those things, they can still pound you."
The HEAT's system against not just the Pacers but any team with a post or isolation heavy attack has been to front the player trying to get the ball. You probably remember Shane Battier doing this regularly with Carmelo Anthony, David West and Kevin Durant in the playoffs last year, but it doesn't matter who the defender is – Miami wants to cut off that which you most heavily rely on. Whether it's Battier, LeBron James or Chris Bosh, they will fight to get between the post player and the ball.
The rationale behind this isn't overly complicated. By taking away something another team is comfortable doing, the HEAT force them to adapt on the fly. And just as with Miami's aggressive, blitzing style of pick-and-roll defense, the more they can force opponents to improvise the more they are going to create turnovers and efficient scoring opportunities. Remember, only one team turns the ball over more than the Pacers.
Even outside of a HEAT context, fronting will cause confusion even for teams that are experienced in dealing with it. In Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, the San Antonio Spurs regularly fronted Zach Randolph in the post and the Grizzlies, a team that picked apart Miami's fronting defense in an early-season game, appeared to have never seen this manner of alien defense before. Every second spent looking at a front, waiting for a passing angle that was never going to appear, was a second the shot clock got shorter. The offense stagnated, and by the time it kicked back into gear, there was barely ten seconds left to work with.
"You don't practice against it and even if you practice against it, it's not the same as doing it in games," Shane Battier said about fronting. "If you're used to doing something for 82 games and all of a sudden a team makes you switch and do something entirely different, you get hit and take a step back for a second. It's just a different look."
When you have to take a step-back with a 24-second shot clock, that can often mean the possession turns into an isolation with one player desperately trying to create an opportunity. And no team has more trouble scoring out of one-on-one basketball than the Pacers, as they rank 30th in points per isolation possession.
There are a variety of ways for Indiana to combat this scheme. Just as the HEAT did against the Chicago Bulls, post players can use the front to their advantage by sealing the defender on the high side of the floor and trusting his teammates to swing the ball back to the middle for a better passing angle. The Pacers and Grizzlies have each worked this high-low game against Miami before, but it's incredibly tough to pull off with any consistency due to the timing and precise passing involved.
Because fronting is heavily reliant on weakside help – otherwise the entry passer can simply lob the ball over the top – the Pacers have also tried to eliminate the other defensive big man from the equation, either by using one of their bigs as the entry passer or by getting into their offense quicker and pulling the rest of the defense higher up the floor.
That's how Udonis Haslem was beaten using a front during Miami's loss in early February. Haslem did exactly what he was supposed to, but there wasn't enough size and speed in place behind him to deter the lob.
In the past, the Pacers have tried to work their way around fronts for much of a first half before shifting to a pick-and-roll heavy attack after the break, but how Frank Vogel moves his pieces around the board will depend entirely on how effective the HEAT can be in denying what Indiana wants. If the Pacers either have to force the issue and risk offensive stagnation to get to what they want, or abandon their base strategy entirely for stretches at a time, then Miami's defense will have imposed its identity on the series.
Miami In the Post
The Pacers may use the post with more volume than any team, but the HEAT use it with more efficiency. Each of the last two HEAT-Pacers matchups during the regular season featured above-average post usage from Miami, but it was a slightly different look than you might be used to.
Because James and Wade are so deadly effective on the blocks, most teams send extra attention to the ball to force the ball out of their hands. This typically causes passing lanes to open up to perimeter shooters and, whether directly or via hockey-assist, creates opportunities for some of the best shooters in the league to take threes from the corners.
Like the Chicago Bulls before them, the Pacers want to limit the shots that Miami gets in the corner zones. So, they don't consistently double the post.
The Good: The HEAT get post-ups whenever they want. You can do much, much worse than pounding the ball into James and Wade.
The Bad: Miami's offense is so good, the team can also do better than just pounding the ball into James and Wade in the post. Despite those two being the most efficient post-up duo in the league, if the Pacers don't double then you can still end up with four players watching the ball just as you would with an isolation. And even the best post offense in the league (.932 points per possession) isn't as efficient as the HEAT can be when earning spot-up shots (1.089 points per possession).
The key, as always, is to find balance. Run through your usual reads and packages, but take the post-ups the Pacers will give you, especially given the work that James and Wade have put in on developing that side of their game.
"It has helped me a lot because when you get in the post it settles you. It puts you closer to the basket," Wade said of his years-long development in the post. "Not only does it help the team but it helps you when you're not feeling as well. Sometimes guys get a little tired and they just sit down there instead of running around."
The Comfort Zone
Every defense, no matter how effective, is going to have holes. The Bulls play the corners very tightly, which means there is usually a pocket of space available to the left and right of the paint should you ever wish to use it. The Pacers, while less reliant on positioning – they won't face guard Ray Allen as much as Tom Thibodeau did – cover ground with their long, athletic wings while West and Hibbert lock down the paint. Those big men will still sit back in the paint on most pick and rolls, but size has a cost, and the Pacers don't have anyone as mobile as Joakim Noah to cover Chris Bosh.
The mid-range shot will be there for the taking.
We won't belabor this point too much, as we went over it at length the last time these teams met, but even though we generally accept that long two-point jumpers are some of the worst shots in the game, Bosh is an exception to this rule because he can make more than half his shots from that range. Any time Miami gets dribble penetration, or runs a quick pick-and-roll at the top of the key, Bosh will be able to find space. Against the Knicks, Hibbert was able to stay attached to Tyson Chandler in the paint and not draw a three-in-the-key whistle, but Bosh is going to force Hibbert to make tough decisions. Based on how he's played against Miami in the past, Hibbert will elect to shade the ball in the paint, but the more shooters the HEAT put on the floor the more of an issue this becomes for Indiana.
Mid-range doesn't just mean long jumpers, either. Hibbert and to a lesser extent West (who will hedge more aggressively on the ball from time to time) want to keep the ball in front of them at all costs. Where Noah would 'catch' the ball and try to force down the side of the lane, Hibbert will stay square and seal off the front of the rim, opening up the space on the high side of the paint.
That means if James, Wade, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole want to take floaters and runners in the paint, those shots will be available to them. These aren't ideal outcomes for every Miami possessions – even though James makes about half of his shots from that in-between zone – but knowing what shots you can get to in a pinch on a short shot clock can be worth more than a few points every game.
Working for Threes
This series will pit possibly the best corner-three shooting team in league history against a defense that only allowed teams to shoot 31.8 percent in those spots. Something will have to give. Against Chicago, the team that allowed the fewest corner attempts in the league coming into the Miami series, the HEAT were still able to get their shots. But the Pacers are longer and more athletic – at least in their starting five – than Chicago (without Luol Deng) on the perimeter, and they close the heck out of those corners, often beating the pass to the spot.
There's no easy way around this. No matter how out of position the Pacers are, they seemingly always have someone to send racing to the arc. So Miami will have to get creative, at times using quick-hitter actions as they have in the past, either using shooters as screeners (Battier is shown below but the team regularly runs high screens for Ray Allen):
Or by eliminating the closeout entirely by screening off the primary defender.
Or, as Chalmers took advantage of in Miami's March victory over Indiana, simply walking into threes in either transition or the halfcourt if the Pacers sit back to anticipate a screen. Shots off the dribble aren't typically efficient, but if the defense allows you to comfortably walk into a three, that can be another exception to the rule.
The Search for Space
Just as was the case last season when Miami lost Chris Bosh in Game 1 against the Pacers, the HEAT's best weapon against Indiana's size is their spacing. One team wants to shrink the floor with their size, one team wants to spread it out with shooters. The Pacers will try to punish Miami in the post and on the boards – the HEAT are a much better rebounding team when they kick things up a notch for the postseason, but they still have to do the little things like boxing out – and the HEAT want to make Indiana's starting lineup unplayable by either drawing fouls or forcing Hibbert and West to go out of their comfort zone on defense.
That's the storyline of this series for a reason, and that battle between space and size will likely decide things. But remember the turnovers that Miami wants to create, and the shots they know they can get in the mid-range and in the post. Remember that rebounding isn't about size, it's about boxing out and going after the ball. Remember how responsible the weakside defender is for making sure the post front is effective. Remember that Erik Spoelstra plays the process, not results.
Remember that, in the end, it's not about the Pacers for the HEAT. It's about them getting to what they want to do, and forcing Indiana to beat them. It just won't be pretty.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com and Synergy Sports