Pacers & Heat Still Looking To Get Mojo Back
But yesterday's game is still far away from addressing the problems both teams ran into during the month of March--problems that need to be cleaned up during the next two months if either plans on advancing to the 2014 NBA Finals.
When both teams went 5-7 in their previous 12 games, primarily against Western Conference competition, it exposed vulnerabilities in both squads (Pacers were winless against the West in four games; Heat was 3-4).
Both have plenty of time to fix these problems: Miami has an easy East-flavored schedule down the stretch, only facing two tough games before the playoffs--Indiana once more (April 11) and at Memphis; Indiana has a tougher road, with two home games against top West teams San Antonio and Oklahoma City, in addition to that road Miami game which settles the season series (Indy leads, 2-1).
But as said before, both have to fix these problems before mid-May when the playoffs really get heated and once it is too late to fine tune any more.
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Now is the time that Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra has to figure out how to get LeBron James playing like an MVP once again. Ever since the San Antonio Spurs gave the league the blueprint in the 2013 NBA Finals on how to slow down LeBron--force him to shoot contested long 2s--the rest of the West has slowly adapted and recently began limiting LeBron to .308 long-2 shooting during this noted stretch, taking LeBron's season-long Game Score down from 23.2 to 19.5 during Miami's slump. Granted, he was only a mediocre shooter at that range before the stretch (.394), but now he has become grossly ineffective from that spot, without seeing an uptick in shots from other efficient zones on the court. Earlier this season, Shane Battier told me he was "surprised more people don't play defense like that" against LeBron and other rim attackers as well. Well, during this recent stretch, we saw the smart teams--Spurs, Rockets, Bulls--all have success transforming the four-time MVP into a mere All-Star forward (hey, you can't stop him; you can only hope to contain him) by inviting King James to take contested 2s in the 16-to-23 foot range. If Spoelstra doesn't make adjustments to what LeBron's options are in that situation, savvy Ds will continue to employ LeBron's Kryptonite against the back-to-back NBA champions.
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Now is the time Indiana Coach Frank Vogel has to figure out how to get his Pacers to return to playing historic-level defense once again. For most of the 2013-14 season, the Pacers were playing historic-level defense that had them ranking among the Top 5 defenses since 1979-80, when the three-point shot was introduced to the NBA. However, during this Pacers slump, Indy's defensive efficiency numbers have risen from 94 points allowed per 100 possessions to 100 points allowed per 100 in the past 12 games. You can blame George Hill's injury. The departure of Pacers' leader Danny Granger. The natural confusion on D from newest Pacer Evan Turner. Or even the untested nature of Andrew Bynum and Lavoy Allen, who haven't quite earned second-string Pacers status just yet. Whatever it is, the Pacers need to find their identity in the next nine weeks. Because if they do not, there is no way they'll be able to stop the Heat, much less a West team later, with so many moving parts on a once-still team. As it was during this stretch, Miami's offensive numbers dropped from a league-leading 109.5 offensive efficiency in 2013-14 to a 107.7 offensive efficiency during this poor stretch. That, combined with Indy's recent penchant for allowing three-point shooting teams to get off on them recently (.368 on 3s in last 12 games) are problems Indiana cannot afford come playoff time. You can only use the Evan Turner is new to the defense excuse for so long. When I spoke with Paul George a month ago, he anticipated there may be times like this ahead, saying, "Every team is ready for us, and there are nights where teams get hot. Our margin of error becomes that much slimmer when teams become hot."
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You cannot use the Wednesday Pacers-Heat game as a measuring stick. The Pacers' D let LeBron get off (only four shots and four of his 38 points came on LeBron long 2s Wednesday). Shut down his other options. Therefore, we were not afforded the opportunity to see if LeBron and Spoelstra are starting to make the necessary adjustments on teams that play him that way. Or if the Pacers' D is kicking into high gear. Or both. Or neither.
Most people would say the MVP and the historic D were in full effect Wednesday night.
But you and I know better. LeBron might not be fully tested again until he plays the Grizzlies (April 9). And the Pacers D truly won't be put through the paces until we see the Spurs (March 31) and Thunder (April 13) offenses come to Indy, and even then, who knows if any of those teams will show their hand and play their starters in a regular-season game of less and less importance at pre-playoff time.