2020 Playoffs: First Round | Pacers vs. Heat

Series Preview: Overachieving teams set for intriguing showdown

Slowing down Miami's deep roster might be too much for banged-up Pacers

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

There are many ways to overachieve, and these two teams embody a couple of them.

Sometimes an individual or a group gets overlooked through no fault of their own, and draws motivation from a burning desire to prove its critics wrong. That would be the Miami Heat in this first-round Eastern Conference series. Miami, always driven and well-coached, surpassed most modest expectations for this season, coalescing quickly around sign-and-trade addition Jimmy Butler. A team that typically plays with an edge anyway added an alpha dog and, different from Butler’s previous stops in Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia, set up a deep, versatile pecking order behind him. Outscoring foes by about one 3-pointer and one free throw nightly, flexing two Miami strengths, helps too.

Another kind of overachieving team is one that has every excuse put in front of it to fail, yet ignores them. That’s the Indiana Pacers, who have dealt with serious injury absences or rust — 183 games missed overall and 21 different starting lineups, heading into their seeding-game finale — as if they’ve been a bit of indigestion through which to push. It’s a tribute to coach Nate McMillan and his staff for creatively plugging holes by fiddling with matchups and styles.

The overachieving, however, stops here for one of these East grinders.

Three things to watch

1. How many Pacers injuries are too many? It probably would be easier to list the important Indiana guys who haven’t missed significant time, considering the bug has afflicted Victor Oladipo, Jeremy Lamb, Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner, JaKarr Sampson and others. But the playoffs are no time to have key guys hobbling or missing. That’s the case with big man Domantas Sabonis (plantar fasciitis, left foot), a starter and All-Star this season who looks like he won’t be finishing. Keep an eye on T.J. Warren, one of the bubble’s break-outs, who has been coping with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

2. Will the Jimmy Butler-T.J. Warren feud be a thing?

Even if Warren is able to keep logging heavy minutes, he might find it hard to put up the sort of scoring numbers that grabbed folks’ attention early in the restart. That leftover beef from January between the two feisty forwards tipped in Butler’s favor Monday when they finally faced each other again, Warren shooting 5-for-14 in a 22-point defeat. The theatrics might not play out the way they did in the winter, but the Heat will be able to tailor their defense vs. Warren night after night, with Butler as the tip of that spear. So the answer is probably no and yes.

3. Is this any way for a top rookie to finish his season?

Kendrick Nunn already has been tabbed as a finalist for the Kia Rookie of the Year balloting and might end up as high as No. 2 (nobody’s beating Memphis guard Ja Morant). Like most rookies, Nunn has nearly a full, elongated season under his belt and should be ready to shed the status. At 15.2 points per game and 35.6% 3-point shooting, Nunn was a valued surprise for Miami. But Nunn got sick, had to re-quarantine and fell out of sync with his team. In no time, coach Erik Spoelstra had shifted to a starting lineup of Goran Dragic, Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, Jae Crowder and Bam Adebayo, with Tyler Herro probably first off the bench. Nunn almost will have to earn his minutes all over again. Nice problem for a team to have, though.

The number to know

38.1% — The Heat led the league in 3-point percentage at 38.1%, having seen the biggest jump from last season, when they ranked 21st (34.9%). Duncan Robinson, who ranked fourth in individual 3-point percentage (44.8%) and third in 3s per game (3.8), has been the biggest part of the improvement and terrorizes opposing defenses with his movement and aggressiveness. The rotation also includes four non-threats — Bam Adebayo (2-for-14), Jimmy Butler (24.4%), Andre Iguodala (29.8%) and Derrick Jones Jr. (28.0%) — from beyond the arc. But Miami has other dangerous shooters, including Kelly Olynyk (41.2%), Tyler Herro (39.0%) and Jae Crowder, who went from shooting 29.3% from 3-point range with Memphis to 44.5% after getting traded to the Heat.

John Schuhmann

The pick

Miami won the first three meetings heading toward the series finale Friday. Average margin of victory: 12.3 ppg. The Heat can stretch Indiana’s thinned defense and roster in a couple of ways: Flaunting a league-leading accuracy from the arc (38.1%) and doing what it takes to get to the foul line (Miami is No. 1 in free-throw rate). Miami has controlled the Pacers on the boards, too. For example, allowing them only eight offensive boards in three games. With Sabonis, a rust-free Oladipo and a springy Warren, this could be a coin-flip seven-gamer. Not now. Heat in 5.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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