A few league executives mentioned to me during the preseason what an interesting position the Pacers were in — a very good team, with a star player (Danny Granger) struggling through an unknown injury, in the same conference as a juggernaut. Should the Pacers kick the can down the road a few years, perhaps by dealing David West’s expiring contract for a no. 1 pick, hoping to peak again during the primes of Paul George and Roy Hibbert, when the Heat might be in decline?
It turned out to be a hot-button question, though more a theoretical one, since the small-market Pacers could not afford to alienate a tepid fan base by taking a calculated step back. (Nor would ownership approve such a thing.) Some rival execs took the cold route, suggesting the Pacers should dangle West in search of a pick. But most urged Indiana to stand pat and go for it, even if the Pacers internally concluded they had only something like a 5 percent chance of winning a ring. Only a few teams each season reach even those slim odds, a point at which one ill-timed injury or stroke of matchup luck can vault a 5-percenter onto the podium next to David Stern.
And, boom, here we are. The Miami Heat are the best team in the NBA. That’s nice for them, and it’s also not very relevant now, as they stare at a home elimination game. Dwyane Wade is a hobbled, sad wraith, Chris Bosh is dealing with an ankle issue (and a Hibbert-West issue), and the Heat as they exist today are not the Heat that won 27 games in a row.
That’s not to take away from what Indiana has done. The Pacers are missing Granger, and though his near season-long absence helped make George what he is now, the Pacers could have possibly already won this series if they had a single competent two-way bench player. Indiana’s defense, the best in the league, has defanged Miami’s 3-point attack, and the team’s combination of size and physicality has taken the Heat almost completely out of its game.
The Pacers are good enough that they’d have accomplished a percentage of this even against a peak Heat team. This isn’t a peak Heat team. And that’s fine! As much as we all freak out about season-ending injuries to guys like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook in the playoffs — and the wave of star injuries over the past two seasons has been unusual — injuries of one kind or another affect championship odds every season. All any team can do is beat the competition in front of them. The Pacers have done that three times in six games against Miami, and they’ve earned a surprising chance at the Finals tonight. The 5 percent theory lives.
• This is the second straight season that an invulnerable team has suddenly become very vulnerable in the conference finals. The Heat were 45-3 in their last 48 games going into this series, and they inspired some very serious Fo-Fo-Fo talk before the playoffs. Now they’re on death’s door. The Spurs last season were 31-2 over 33 games before the Thunder figured out how to defend them and bulldozed San Antonio out of the playoffs.
There’s a lesson here: The postseason is a different animal. We should be cautious next time, present company included, getting carried away with regular-season dominance. The combination of wear-and-tear injuries and specific matchup issues can blow a hole in that invulnerability very fast. The best teams in the regular season are the best teams, and they do have the best odds of winning the championship. But the margin between “best” and “second best” can shrink over a short series against a single, well-equipped opponent.
• The Pacers through six games know precisely what they are, rotationwise. Their starting lineup has destroyed Miami, just as it destroyed the league all season, and if the Pacers can just stay afloat when the bench guys come in, they have a great shot to beat Miami on any court. Indiana’s starters in this series are plus-49 over 153 minutes, the equivalent of beating the Heat units they’ve faced by about 16 points per game over a 48-minute game. That is astounding. No other Pacers lineup has logged more than 14 minutes in this series. Think about that: Indiana’s second most-used lineup in this series has averaged about two minutes per game, and that 14-minute group is also the only lineup besides the starters to have appeared in all six games so far.
Frank Vogel tonight will extend his starters as far as they can go. His bench is a disaster, and he knows it. The second D.J. Augustin comes in the game, you can almost feel the ground tremors as the entire population of Indianapolis recoils from their television screens in horror and flees the room. When the Heat see Augustin, they transition right into pick-and-roll sets in which their point guard, Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole, screens for LeBron James, knowing Augustin has zero clue how to deal with the other half of pick-and-roll defense. Sam Young cannot catch or hold a regulation basketball, though he’s working hard on defense. Tyler Hansbrough and Ian Mahinmi try hard and know what to do, but the Heat understand how punchless they are on offense compared to West and Hibbert, and are treating them accordingly.
Vogel plays only one of them at a time, and the Pacers run the same general pick-and-roll-to-post-up sets with those units as they do when both Hibbert and West are in the game. But those plays don’t work as well, because the Heat keenly rejigger their rotations to load up on whichever starting big is in the game, giving Hansbrough/Mahinmi some more breathing space and forcing those lesser bigs to make plays they generally can’t make.
The starters can’t play all 48 minutes, and I’m not sure Vogel can extend them any further than he already has. But he might try, and as we saw in Game 5, foul trouble to Indiana might be the single most important variable in this series. A few extra minutes with Augustin in place of Stephenson or Hill could quite literally cost Indiana a trip to the Finals.
• The Heat’s rotation, on the other hand, is in total disarray. After Bosh’s injury in last season’s playoffs, Miami recentered its identity around small-ball lineups with Shane Battier and LeBron James splitting power forward duties. Battier banged with the bruisers on defense, and his willingness to do that allowed Miami to spread the floor with deadly 3-point shooting on offense. Eight of Miami’s 10 most-used lineups in the regular season were variations on this Battier-as-power-forward theme; the Chalmers-Wade-Battier-LeBron-Bosh lineup logged 300 minutes, making it Miami’s no. 2 most-used lineup for the season, per NBA.com.
That lineup has logged three minutes in this entire series. Three. Battier is likely physically spent from a full season unlike anything he’s ever experienced, and from back-to-back playoff rounds dealing with Carlos Boozer and now West. Indiana has proven too long, too fast, and too unified in its movement for Battier to get clean looks from 3-point range, resulting in lots of possessions like this:
Indiana has nearly expunged Battier from Miami’s rotation, forcing the Heat to rely upon two sorts of lineups it did not expect to be using so much at this late stage: lineups with two traditional big men (to the degree Bosh is a “traditional big man” anymore), and smaller lineups that don’t include Battier. The bigger groups have played Indiana about even, but “about even” represents a big drop-off for a Miami team accustomed to dominance, and the Heat just can’t space the floor as well with these groups.
When Miami is smaller, LeBron post-ups work as vehicles to 3-point shots; LeBron can scan the floor from inside out as shooters drift around the perimeter, hoping to find a seam while defenders turn their heads toward James. But these bigger groups feature only one above-average long-range shooter around LeBron, leaving him with few passing options before he shrugs and launches tough jumpers like this:
James has to be more of a bully scorer in the post within these groups; the Heat need him to dig deep tonight and find the bruising back-to-the-basket game he whipped out in Game 3. He can score that way, and if he can shoulder-check George a few steps in toward the rim, James can draw emergency help and open up shots and cutting lanes for teammates.
And when Miami’s big lineups run the pick-and-roll sets it has leaned upon in this series, Indiana’s defense has been smart about taking an extra step into the paint off so-so long-range shooters. Watch on this Chalmers-Bosh pick-and-roll as George, guarding James, darts all the way to the middle of the foul line to help on Bosh’s roll, while Stephenson, on the ice-cold Wade, steps inside the edge of the paint in case the Heat can penetrate there:
(The Pacers normally stay a bit closer to shooters, banking on Hibbert to contain the main action in the middle, and they’ve stuck to that when Miami puts better shooting on the wing.) James, of course, has become a very good 3-point shooter, but George can help like this because of his length and expert footwork. He has been tremendous in this series, on plays just like this, at closing out on James without getting himself off-balance and vulnerable to blow-by drives. And James knows George is 6-foot-10, with giant arms. Indiana’s length at every position is the foundation of its defense; there’s a reason Vogel had these guys stand side-by-side in the locker room once in training camp, arms extended out to their sides, as a way of showing the team how huge it is as a collective.
Udonis Haslem’s jumper and Chris Andersen’s duck-ins have saved these lineups, and as much as we like to speculate about strategy and toughness and rising to the moment, winning and losing tonight might be as simple as Haslem hitting a few of the jumpers he missed in Game 6.
The smaller lineups, typically featuring Allen or Mike Miller in Battier’s place, hold some hope for Heat fans who watched those units shoot Miami back into Game 6 during the fourth quarter. Miller has a much quicker release than Battier, and he has likely earned himself some run tonight. Allen is speedier than Battier, with a much quicker trigger, and the speed of these lineups gave Indiana some problems in Game 6. The Heat pushed the pace off of any Indiana miss, and they got a bunch of wide-open looks by putting LeBron and Cole into pick-and-rolls with both Allen and Miller. The Pacers play two big men the entire game, and so when the Heat go small, one of those big men has to guard a smaller player. Battier usually supplies that hiding place, but with him on the bench, a Pacers big has to run around with Allen or Miller.
Miller’s speed advantage over Hansbrough on this LeBron-Miller pick-and-pop spooked George Hill into rotating off Allen in the corner to challenge a potential Miller shot, giving Allen a fantastic look:
And on the second LeBron-Allen pick-and-roll here, Hansbrough is so worried about leaving Allen that he stays almost attached to him, allowing LeBron to turn the corner, draw crisis-level help from Stephenson off of Wade, and open up a very nice cutting chance for Wade:
These lineups also exposed some very basic confusion between Hill and George on pick-and-roll coverage schemes — messiness the Pacers have to clean up tonight, since the Heat will give these sorts of lineups another chance to do damage. Hill and George haven’t had to work together as the main players in pick-and-roll defense much this season, and they seemed confused against these quicker Miami lineups about whether or not they should switch or stick with their original assignments. Cole gets a wide-open look here after both Indy defenders chase LeBron on a LeBron-Cole pick-and-roll:
And on this LeBron-Cole action, Hill and George both pursue Cole in the right corner, leaving LeBron way too much space and forcing poor Hansbrough into an emergency rotation off the greatest 3-point shooter who ever lived:
There were other botched or semibotched plays like this. These Heat lineups are dangerous and fast, and they force this kind of on-the-fly confusion. But the Pacers can be better, and they’ll have to be tonight.
• One cautionary tale for Miami fans holding on to these non-Battier small-ball lineups as the key to salvation: They have generally only worked against Indiana bench units. The nine such lineups that have logged at least two minutes together in this series are a combined plus-10 in 49 minutes, but they’re minus-13 in the subset of those minutes in which the Pacers have had both West and Hibbert on the floor, according to an analysis of lineup data here. And that minus-13 includes one monster plus-6 stretch in which Hibbert and West played alongside Augustin.
Basically, it's not clear if these lineups are actually effective, or if they'll only work well against Indiana lineups with a heavy bench presence.
• Finally, some quick-hitting thoughts on some X's-and-O's tweaks we might see tonight. Coaches make little adjustments like this game-to-game — undramatic but essential changes in the structure of pet plays, the participants in those plays, where they occur on the floor, and what happens around them. I’ve mentioned some already — more aggressive LeBron post-ups, more quick-hitting small-ball pick-and-rolls, etc. Here are some others:
• It can be effective when the Heat use picks under the rim to free up LeBron in the post, like this:
And if the Pacers ever front James there, the Heat have had success swinging the ball around the perimeter while James seals his man behind him.
• Bosh, if he’s close to healthy, should be able to beat Hibbert and West off the dribble. Remember when Chris Bosh used to actually do stuff like this? The Heat often use a play that starts with Bosh setting a down screen for Wade on the right side, in hopes of smushing Wade’s guy and freeing Wade for a back-door cut:
Bosh misses the pick in this example, and that’s enough to basically blow the play. But when Bosh hits it, his man will often sag down to prevent the pass to Wade, and in that moment, LeBron likes to flick a pass over to Bosh, who can use the extra space to get a head of steam on a drive to the rim. The Heat should be able to find this against Indiana.
• Another way to get Bosh going: clear one side of the floor for a LeBron-Bosh pick-and-roll, have Bosh cut hard into the middle instead of fading for a jumper, and let him either drive or find an open shooter from there:
The play above failed, but the idea behind it is good.
• Wade is complaining about getting enough shots, but his shot selection has been awful at times. The Heat cannot afford wasted trips like this against the league’s best defense — not with so much time left on the shot clock.
That play is designed to flow into a Wade-Bosh pick-and-roll, but Wade, for some reason only he understands, cuts off the play to launch a terrible shot. Egads.
• When in doubt, continue running the pitch-back sideline pick-and-rolls that have done fairly well since Game 1 — especially if they end with an Allen shot from the corner:
Indiana defends this play perfectly — seriously, bravo, Lance Stephenson — and this stuff will produce some good looks.
• We know what the Pacers are going to do — run a bunch of pick-and-rolls designed to leverage their size by either freeing up the big man rolling to the rim or the “other” big man posting up elsewhere on the floor. Variations on this amount to two-thirds of their half-court offense.
The other one-third might decide tonight’s game, since it is there that Indiana can find some unpredictability. They can post up George against Wade, and in Game 6, they started running more sets that involved George doing his best Allen impression by rocketing off a series of screens along the baseline:
The play ends in a turnover, but there is profit to be had here. The Pacers know the ultra-aggressive Heat will trap George after he pops off that last screen, and if George reads the floor correctly, he can find a shooter; West, for instance, flashed open near the foul line just before the ill-fated pass on this play:
• The Pacers also know George will draw all sorts of attention running around the right side like this, and so out of one timeout, they used that action as sort of a decoy, to free up West in the post on the other side:
• They also caught Miami by surprise a bit late in Game 6 by running some sets through Hibbert at the elbow, something they haven’t done much this series (or this season):
Watch how blatantly Miller ignores Stephenson on that play, by the way. Miller treated Stephenson like this for almost his entire stint in the fourth quarter, and the Pacers surely noted that on film.
Look, this series is nearly dead even after six games. I have no clue who is winning tonight. The safe bet is always to pick the home team, especially when they have the world’s best player, but Indiana has already won once in Miami, and nearly snagged another in Game 1. The Pacers have played this series mostly on their terms. And even so, it’s been a near tie through six games. The team that wins will be the one that squeezes every ounce of efficiency and smarts from every possession it gets, and the one that makes an extra jumper or two that it has missed in prior games. Who will that be? The world, and the Spurs, await.