The Pacers played themselves out of an excellent situation by losing on Sunday to a Heat team that looked more motivated and driven than it had all playoffs. Now, with the series tied 2-2 and heading back to Miami for a pivotal game 5, the question becomes, how can the Pacers get back to winning? Here’s five things to consider:
1. Go Bigger Longer. Frank Vogel has done an excellent job matching Miami’s speed this series by indiscriminately playing “small ball” when the Heat trot out LeBron James at four and just one legit big at five. But he may have been overthinking that strategy on Sunday. Due to some untimely fouls on David West in the first half and Roy Hibbert in the second, Vogel had an excuse to go small for extended periods, and particularly during the Pacers’ third quarter defensive meltdown (when they were outscored 30-16) he seemed too attached to the Hibbert-less lineup. Whether he was saving Hibbert because of the fouls, or to keep him fresh for the end of the game is really irrelevant; the Pacers let their 8-point halftime lead slip away and never took advantage of their size in the second half, eventually letting Udonis Haslem knock down some big fourth quarter shots to effectively put the Pacers away early. Haslem’s 14 points (5-6 FG, +15 +/-) came mostly on offensive opportunities that Hibbert probably couldn’t have defended anyway, but it’s on the offensive end that Big Roy would’ve made a difference. He outmuscles literally every Miami post player and his sheer presence would have forced the Heat to alter its game plan. Going forward Frank Vogel must dictate the strategy, rather than simply reacting to it.
2. Limit Three Point Shots (No Matter How Bad They Look). Miami was an efficient 5-12 from downtown on Sunday, which was by far the team’s best perimeter shooting game of the series. And while they’ve generally shot abysmally up to this point, and the Pacers have played solid defense, they backed off of hot shooters too much in game four and it cost them. The whole world has seen enough of Dwyane Wade to know what he’s capable of when he gets hot. Indiana defenders must treat him as though every single shot attempt is going in, no matter how much it looks like garbage.
3. Attack! Wade and James played 83 minutes on Sunday and combined for two fouls. On the series James has been whistled for just three fouls while playing 40+ minutes every contest. The Pacers shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for the officials to start calling LeBron for his stiff arm move (where he essentially clubs defenders out of the way with his off hand, prior to starting an attack move), so if they want to slow down the Heat and get them out of rhythm, they have to actually challenge LeBron (and Wade) at the rim. Easier said than done. Both are athletic shot-blockers who can chase down opponents from behind, covering tons of ground with very little effort. But the floaters and mid-lane pull-ups won’t get it done against a tough Miami team whose stars exude every bit as much physicality as the Pacers do.
Energize! The energy at Bankers Life Fieldhouse was non-existent on Sunday. For some reason the Fieldhouse (or the Pacers, or whoever) decided not to re-distribute “Gold Swagger” t-shirts, and while that’s a different story, it is indicative of the overall problem. There was too much standing around on defense. Many Pacers ball-gawked and star-gazed, enjoying their front row tickets to the LeBron and Wade scoring clinic. The fans tried to stay into it, but without the shirts, and with the listless nature of the Pacers’ body language, it was hard. I understand Vogel’s strategy of playing small, and it usually pays off when the Pacers’ undersized players (like Hansbrough and Amundson) inject energy. But nothing was working on Sunday. The Pacers needed big plays for crowd response, but weren’t getting many.
4. Swarm! LeBron and Wade are outstanding, and they were always poised to do this a few times this series. But it was far too easy. Once the Pacers realize how urgent it is to get energized, they have to focus on making life difficult for the stars. The difficult turn around fadeaways are acceptable; if they can hit them they deserve them. But one-on-one drive-and-dishes vs. slower defenders are not. LeBron absolutely dissected the Pacers’ interior defense, while Wade was on attack mode for 100% of the second half. If the “Big Two” score 70 on Tuesday (which hopefully they won’t) it had better come more from the perimeter and free throw line after hard fouls. Otherwise the Pacers are in a world of hurt.
Don’t Get Discouraged. Frank Vogel is an excellent motivator so I’m not particularly worried about this. But it will be easy for the Pacers to hang their heads after Sunday’s loss. They can’t let it get to them though. The veterans must step up and rally this team together because a game 5 victory would shift the momentum again, and put Miami in a horribly uncomfortable position: on the brink headed back to Indiana. Likewise, the Pacers can’t view this series as a victory already. They need to have a killer instinct to win, and the belief that they actually can.