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Pacers Faced with King-Sized Task

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

May 27, 2013, 5:35 PM

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It starts with stopping LeBron.

Whether he's posting up and butt-butting his defender into the foul lane for an easy shot, or penetrating and leaving a pass for an easy dunk or layup, or whipping a cross-court pass for a wide-open three-pointer, the Pacers have to figure a way to stop LeBron.

Well, OK, forget that. The best player in the world by a mile or two, LeBron James isn't going to be stopped by the Pacers or any other humans, because he doesn't appear to be human at times. Their challenge in this Eastern Conference finals match-up they now trail 2-1 is to prevent James from completely dominating it, perhaps leaving enough stray threads of imperfection to exploit and knit into a victory.

It's happened before, such as in Game 2 when his two late passing turnovers helped the Pacers win in Miami, but James' performance in Game 3 was a declaration by the four-time league Most Valuable Player. His statistics weren't eye-popping – 22 points, four rebounds, three assists – but he controlled the game, creating so many opportunities for teammates that all five starters scored in double figures for the first time in the series.

Nobody reflected James' contributions more than Udonis Haslem, who had totaled three points in the series' first two games, and four points in the three regular season games against the Pacers. Haslem mostly camped out on the baseline and waited for the ball to be swung his way from an offense usually initiated by James. He wound up hitting 8-of-9 shots and scoring a season-high 17 points, a significant total for a player who had scored in double figures just six times during the regular season.

James added a new wrinkle to his game on Sunday: post-ups. He had rarely done it in the first two games, and didn't do it as often as it seemed in Game 3. He scored just four of his field goals off post-ups, but they were the fulcrum on which the Heat offense turned, and typify the enormity of the Pacers' challenge. They take great pride in not having to double-team anyone, but watching James physically dominate Paul George – 35 pounds lighter and five years younger – on the low block seemed simply unfair.

It was effective, too, and there's no simple solution to deal with it.

“The danger is him picking us apart,” David West said. “You can't go and trap him when he's right in your face. He's one of the best passers in the game. You have to disguise your schemes. We left Paul on an island last night.”

The Pacers said they don't plan to stray from their fundamentals and double-team James on Tuesday, but they do want to bring more help for George, who will continue to be assigned the task. Rather than letting James dribble five, six times as he backs his way to the basket, the Pacers want to bring help from another defender after a couple of dribbles, and then have weakside defenders rotate quickly enough to cover James' nearest teammates.

“It's just whoever is in the dig spot, and the dig spot is determined by who's at the nail at the free throw line,” George said, referring to the nail at the center of the line to help foul shooters line up their shots. “Whoever is there you have to (move toward James) and throw his timing off or something. He can't feel comfortable down there.”

Team defense helped the Pacers force turnovers from James in Game 2, and it will have to do it again. The catch is that James and the Heat believe they “found” their offense in the first half of Game 3, and hope to keep it. And, there's the problem of James himself, who couldn't care less how he's guarded.

“It's pick your poison, honestly,” he said Monday, with the nonchalance of a man swatting away a mosquito. “If you're going to double me, I'm going to find my shooters. If you play me one-on-one I'm going to be aggressive and look for my shot. You know? I'm an unselfish guy, so if they try to come to the post and take the ball away from me, I'll look weakside and try to find my shooters and try to find my bigs on the baseline. If not, I'm going to go to work.

“I see what the game gives me, I see what the game takes, and I go from there.”

Still, it's not as if the Pacers have no hope. They have two regular season victories and a playoff win over the Heat to draw from. If they hadn't missed 14 foul shots and if Lance Stephenson had produced more than seven points and one rebound, they could have won Game 3.

They also have Roy Hibbert, one of the game's best big-man defenders, available. Hibbert played off Haslem, a seemingly obvious strategy that had worked well until Sunday, but plans to get out on him quicker on the baseline in Game 4. It's a dicey proposition, however. Vogel doesn't want his players to have to rotate too much on defense, and Hibbert's rim protection is the core of his defensive formula.

Hibbert will just have to do the best he can.

“Let's see if he'll be able to (hit jump shots) the next couple of games,” Hibbert said. “He had one heck of a good night last night. I'll just have to bring it more on the defensive end and see if he can keep doing that.

“Being on this team for as long as I've been on this team, I don't want to go home. If I have to move my feet a lot quicker, I'll do it.”