Conference Finals Preview: Miami-Indiana, a Year in the Making

The Heat are just 11-9 in their last 20 games against Indiana, dating to the 2012 playoff series between these two juggernauts, when an injury to Chris Bosh forced the Heat to reinvent themselves as a small-ball 3-point shooting machine — a metamorphosis that changed the course of NBA history. The teams have split 14 games since that series, and the Pacers went 1-1 against the Heat even during their late-season death spiral, slogging out an 84-83 win on March 26 with Donald effing Sloan working as backup point guard.

Dismiss the Pacers at your peril. They have been a bumbling mediocrity for three months now, but they’ve had the league’s stingiest defense during the postseason, and they bring a long record of giving Miami issues when Roy Hibbert is in All-Star form. Hibbert rediscovered his post-up touch over the last five games of Indy’s borderline unwatchable series against Washington, and his rim protection obliterated drives by John Wall and Bradley Beal.

That is the start of explaining how a team that can look so awful, with horrid spacing and amateurish turnovers, can push a team riding the world’s best player toward a three-peat.

The Heat are no longer a five-out team in the vein of Atlanta. Chris Bosh has developed a workable 3-point shot, especially from the corners, but he’s still a long-2-point guy at heart. Dwyane Wade can’t shoot 3s at all, and teams are treating even his midrange jumper with disdain. Shane Battier is limping toward retirement, and the Nets in the last round took an extra step or two away from Battier in order to clog the paint — a shift teams were often too scared to take before this season. Nobody is worried about Rashard Lewis in the Battier role; you can read this sentence faster than Lewis can get his shot off. Mike Miller and his pet monkey are gone.

Playing James Jones can goose Miami’s shooting, but he can’t guard anyone, and slotting him minutes against a big team like Indiana is dicier than it was against a small-ball Brooklyn team. Jones can’t bang with David West, a bad motherf–ker, meaning LeBron would have to slide into that undesirable job whenever Jones is on the floor. Miami in the past has avoided exposing James to West’s shoulder-blocking brutality.

And that’s the bigger-picture thing: Indiana has won enough of the size-versus-speed trade-offs to compensate for the talent gap between these teams at the top. Hibbert has feasted in the post and on the glass on offense, and barricaded the restricted area on the other end. West has bullied Battier, wearing him down and forcing the Heat to rejuggle their rotation in ways that weaken Miami’s devastating offense.

Bosh and Chris Andersen logged 396 minutes together over just 49 games this season, but they appeared in all four Indiana games for a total of 29 minutes, per NBA.com. Bosh and Haslem played together in just 31 of the Heat’s games, but they logged 46 minutes as a duo over the three Miami-Indiana games in which Haslem appeared.

The Heat started four different lineups against Indiana this season, even dusting off Greg Oden for one game. It would not be a surprise if they flip-flopped starting lineups during this series, and Haslem may supplant Battier as early as Game 1. The odds of Oden affecting this series are slim to none, but it will be interesting to see how willing Miami is to chance small ball — and whether it designs its rotation to find those minutes when Indy’s backup bigs are on the court.

Haslem has been a capable midrange shooter, and he seems to have one insane scoring game whenever these teams face off in the postseason. Andersen is dangerous in his own way. But Miami with two big men on the floor is like a declawed cat — still nimble and smart, but less dangerous.

The Pacers have other Miami-specific advantages. Paul George can at least contain LeBron one-on-one, even in the post, where James has become so dangerous. Lance Stephenson has the size to guard both Wade and James, so that the Pacers can switch any screening action between the two Heat stars. Stephenson has even guarded James well when George gets into foul trouble, and fouls are always a wild card in these games, considering Indiana’s precarious bench.

Hibbert’s dominance at the rim on defense has often unnerved James and allows Indy’s perimeter defenders to stay closer to home on Miami’s long-range bombers. Ray Allen especially has struggled to find open looks against the Pacers, and Indiana doesn’t offer many safe hiding places for Miami to hide Allen on defense; even Evan Turner, such a bust in Indiana, might be able to hurt Allen via post-ups.

Indiana is big enough on the perimeter that Miami must be cautious about playing Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole together, something the Heat did more this season as Erik Spoelstra’s other options for supplementary perimeter offense dwindled. Those two played just six minutes together against the rangy Nets in the second round, and 17 of the 27 minutes they logged as a pair against Indy this season came in a single game — the March 26 Pacers win, when Allen sat with the flu and the punchless Sloan took C.J. Watson’s minutes.

The Pacers have the tools to make this a series, despite their crappy play since early February. But a lot of key questions have to go Indiana’s way, even with home-court advantage.

Can They Get the Ball Inside?

The Pacers pushed Miami to seven games last season mostly because they scored at rates we just wouldn’t expect from an offense that peaks at “pedestrian.” Miami tries to make up for its size deficit by fronting the post, and Indiana must find ways around those pesky fronts.

One thing that has worked well for them: using Hibbert in the pick-and-roll. Hibbert is not normally an effective pick-and-roll player; he’s a slow dude who can struggle to catch the ball when he’s standing still, let alone when he’s cutting toward the rim amid a crowd.

But he has turned into a powerhouse against Miami. A full 24.5 percent of possessions Hibbert finished in four regular-season games against the Heat came with him as the screener in pick-and-rolls, a mammoth jump from his season-long share of 10.6 percent, per Synergy Sports. Hibbert shot 5-of-11 and drew a pile of shooting fouls on those plays, turning a weak spot into a strength.

It’s easy to see why: If Miami is playing small, with just one big man on the court, involving Hibbert in the pick-and-roll drags that lone big man away from the hoop. If Hibbert can just get his meaty paws on the ball and turn toward the hoop without falling over, he typically has to finish over a relative Lilliputian:

 

Miami has an easy fix for this: play a second big man, so they have some rim protection waiting for Hibbert back there. But that’s exactly what Indiana invites — a rotation adjustment that hurts Miami’s offense.

Putting Hibbert in the pick-and-roll is also a good way to get him post-ups before Miami can front him, since Hibbert can just run his guy down to the block:

Hibbert shot 11-of-20 from the post against Miami, hard to imagine considering he was blindly flinging hooks into the backboard just a couple of weeks ago. He’s too big for any Miami defender, and has especially overpowered Andersen in the past; Andersen will sometimes try to pull the chair on Hibbert, challenging the big fella’s rickety balance:

Miami’s only recourse is to front, and they’re so good at it that fronting alone has been enough to defang lesser post-up attacks. (Hi, Knicks.) Indiana is a disastrously bad passing team, and lob passes in to Hibbert and West (whom Battier will front if that matchup happens) are a suspenseful gamble.

The Pacers have come up with a solution that pulls the fronting defender away for just enough time to safely enter the ball. If Indiana notes Haslem fronting Hibbert on one side of the floor, they’ll start a possession by running a pick-and-roll on the other side with West. As West cuts toward the rim, Hibbert’s defender will have to unpeel himself from Hibbert and rotate into the middle of the paint to patrol West.

And that is Indiana’s moment. When Hibbert’s defender is occupied, they swing the ball over to Hibbert’s side and get him the rock before that defender can scurry back into fronting position:

Indy can use the same action, with the roles reversed, to get West the ball. The Heat have ways to make this difficult, but Indiana has been up to the challenge enough to squeeze out points.

Does Indiana Still Own the Glass?

The Pacers have collapsed as an offensive rebounding threat after destroying Miami this way last season. Indy was an average offensive rebounding team in the regular season, and it has rebounded just 19 percent of its misses so far in the playoffs — a number that would have ranked dead last in the league. It was about that bad in four games against Miami, a poor defensive rebounding team.

Miami held its own by playing bigger lineups more often, but, again, that’s a trade-off Indiana will accept. Still, it’s hard to see Indy’s shaky offense scoring enough to win this series without more extra chances.

Can the Pacers, Like, Catch and Hold the Ball?

Only five teams coughed up the orange thing at a higher rate this season, and Indy has been one of the league’s worst ballhandling teams for years. Turnovers cost them the series against Miami last season, and Indy turned the ball over on 18 percent of its possessions against the Heat this season — a mark that would have been the league’s worst, by a mile.

Indiana has to move the ball to score enough against even lottery teams. The extra pass isn’t a bonus here; it’s a necessity. But the Pacers are bad at moving it, and they’ll have to find the appropriate balance to have a chance here. Turnovers are death against the Heat.

Can Indiana Work for Good Shots?

Indiana has grown smarter over the years about attacking Miami’s hyperaggressive trapping defense against the pick-and-roll. Miami since acquiring LeBron has blitzed pick-and-roll ball handlers, trapping them hard far from the hoop and forcing them back toward midcourt. They ended Linsanity this way.

Indiana gradually adjusted. It had West roll just after setting a pick, allowing Indy’s guards to slip him the ball before Miami really had a chance to trap. The result: West catching the ball in a 4-on-3 situation, looking at open shooters. West isn’t a great passer, but he’s good enough to get the Pacers some good looks out of this stuff.

Problem: Miami has dialed back the trapping this season, especially against Indiana. The Heat are having their big men drop back more often, or at least stay parallel to the screener instead of rushing out like insane people:

BOSH

The goal is simple: They want Indiana to beat them honestly, without the temporary advantage of a 4-on-3. When the Heat dial it back like this, they are making a wager: “We bet Indiana isn’t competent enough offensively to do anything against us 5-on-5.”

Playing conservatively also carries trade-offs. Indy’s ball handlers can make passes without four long arms waving in their faces, and if you watch its best entries to Hibbert in the post and on the pick-and-roll (including in the clips above), you’ll see that those passes have come against Miami’s scaled-back defense.

But the Heat never abandon trapping altogether. Their “conservative” would count as “spastic” for most other teams. That’s especially true on the sidelines, where Miami still likes to get its crazy on against the pick-and-roll. Watch here as Hibbert is able to slip open into space along the sideline as the Heat trap Stephenson:

And here’s Hibbert scoring on a similar play:

Indy must turn these temporary 4-on-3s, wherever they happen, into points. Hibbert passes the ball almost immediately upon catching it here, and that is crucial for Indiana. The Heat are fast; hesitation is fatal. Pause to survey the floor uncertainly for just a couple of beats, and all the windows close on you.

West can be especially slow-moving when he catches the ball on a pick-and-pop, even when a third defender has rotated right into his face — as LeBron does here:

OH MY GOD, WOULD YOU PASS THE BALL TO ONE OF THE WIDE-OPEN SHOOTERS. (By the way: Note how George Hill just drives at the Battier-West sandwich to start this play. That’s another good way to attack a fronting defense.)

This happens all the time with the Pacers. They can be maddeningly indecisive. They hold the ball instead of making obvious dishes, and they are chronically passing up open 3s in order to just cradle the rock, chill for a couple of seconds, and think about whether Prometheus made any sense. Stephenson snapped at Hill for doing this in Indy’s closeout win over the Wiz on Thursday night, and the funny thing was, Hill’s hesitation was only like the 75th-most egregious instance of this during the last month of Pacer-ball.

Chances are, you are not getting a better look against Miami than the first good one that emerges. Shoot the damn thing.

This raises another issue: Frank Vogel might at least think about finding Chris Copeland some minutes in this series. Indiana’s “scoring” frontcourt typically consists of the David West–Luis Scola pairing, but Scola has been bad this season, and he’s about as awful defensively as Copeland. The presence of Battier, Lewis, or Jones on the floor is a freaking invitation to at least try Copeland risk-free.

The Pacers have to make things easier for their passers in these situations by spacing the floor properly, something at which they are terrible. It’s hard to make passes when players are clogging the lane for no reason, standing next to each other, or lining up in a row so that one Heat defender can guard two Pacers at once.

The Pacers also just have to keep moving, both for their own salvation and to puncture Miami. Indiana’s players aren’t good enough one-on-one for the offense to just stall out after the first option. George especially needs to make LeBron expend energy on defense. The Pacers would do well to use him as the screener in pick-and-rolls, and to push him to keep cutting in creative ways all around the floor:

Indy has gotten good mileage out of guard-guard and guard-wing pick-and-rolls in the playoffs, and that’s something they should revisit in this series.

Wade has been playing in second gear for most of the postseason, and the Heat’s perimeter players can be lazy about switching assignments on the fly and just assuming everyone is on the same page. Sometimes, all it takes to get an open look against them is to have two players off the ball switch places:

Stephenson will also go after Wade in the post, though he has to be careful about overdoing it.

Can LeBron Reclaim the Rim?

James has been more aggressive going at Hibbert this season than ever before, and their clashes at the rim might represent the most exciting moment in basketball. A full 20 of LeBron’s 53 shots against Indiana with Hibbert on the floor this season — about 38 percent — have come in the restricted area, per NBA.com. Only 27 percent of his shots came from there against the Pacers last year in the regular season and playoffs combined with Hibbert on the court, and LeBron barely even bothered going to the hoop until the postseason.

James has been borderline violent in attacking Hibbert already, even committing the rare offensive flagrant foul.

LeBron was relentless against Brooklyn when the Heat needed him. If he plays like that against the Pacers, he might get Hibbert in foul trouble, find shooters, and eventually break Indy’s league-best defense. But Hibbert was sensational turning away everything Washington threw at him, and if he can play that way again in this round, the Pacers will be in business.

You There, Chris Bosh?

The Heat will try to neutralize Hibbert by having his man stand as far from the basket as possible along the baseline, so that Hibbert has to scramble 15 or 20 feet to reach the rim on a drive coming from the opposite side. The Heat try to engineer races to the basket, and Hibbert is so big that it takes him a while to get revved up — like the first few pedals after getting on a bike:

RACE

They’ve historically preferred to attack Hibbert like this — to stash him away from the ball — rather than engage him directly in the pick-and-roll by having his man set the pick for LeBron. The Heat have actually turned to James-Chalmers and James-Cole pick-and-rolls a ton against Indy, usually starting them on one wing while Hibbert’s guy camps out all the way across the floor:

This has been a strong alternative to Wade and James post-ups, plays the Pacers can handle to at least some degree without the kind of double-teams that allow James to pick out shooters.

The Heat have toyed in some games with engaging Hibbert more directly, and Washington brought him into a ton of pick-and-rolls in the second round. This chess match is always fun to watch.

If the Heat play two big men, Hibbert will guard the non-Bosh person — Haslem or Andersen. Those guys don’t quite have Bosh’s range, meaning Hibbert can cheat a bit toward the paint. Andersen has been known to alert referees to Hibbert possibly committing defensive three-seconds violations.

But if Bosh is out there as the solo big man, he can take Hibbert even farther from the basket and make him move around the floor in more quick-hitting actions. Either way, Bosh will have chances to make a huge impact on this series. He’ll be able to slip open for jumpers:

He can face up and take Hibbert off the bounce, a weapon the Heat have not used enough in the past against Indy. He should post up Scola immediately if he’s ever lucky enough to get that matchup for even one possession.

And he will have to bring his peak physicality to the boards. Indiana’s guys are bigger and stronger than Bosh, but he has to at least try to match their hip-checks.

Prediction

The Pacers have home court and the tools to challenge Miami. The Heat are thin and vulnerable, too reliant on the world’s best player.

But LeBron will get his, despite all the problems Indy’s defense can bring. That is what the best player in the world is supposed to do. Wade still has another gear in him. And it’s just hard to trust the Pacers to play four good games after watching them flounder for three months. Their wheezing, stagnant offense shifts from facing Atlanta and Washington to facing an amped-up machine waiting to choke them to death. Their bench remains a massive liability.

HEAT IN SIX

Filed Under: NBA Playoffs, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA