The above video shows LeBron throwing a ridiculous bounce pass to a cutting Wade for a baseline dunk. For the Pacers in Game 4, it was the beginning of the end. For this series, it was the end of the beginning. Everything up to this point becomes, well, pointless. Legacies become solidified over the next two or three games.
With that two-handed throw down, the player impersonating Dwyane Wade appears to have been ousted like the Doppel-Deaner in Community. Not it probably wasn’t so much Danny Granger getting into his face after a silly foul by Roy Hibbert that set him off. It was much more likely the nutty three-pointer he hit two minutes prior and then this dunk (which also happened before Granger’s technical foul). Regardless of the catalyst, from here on out, the Pacers can presume that they now, finally, after three and a half games, have to contend with two Hall of Famers who are both actually playing like Hall of Famers.
It’s a new series: a best of three in which Miami has the home-court advantage.
Frank Vogel probably isn’t that worried about having to go on the road, however. For one, the Pacers are better on the road so far than they have been at home, going 3-1 (.750) so far away from home compared to 3-2 (.600) in Indianapolis. And secondly, the team went 19-14 on the road this year, which included wins in Chicago, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles (over the Lakers), Philadelphia and Orlando (with Dwight Howard). After their win in Game 2 of this series, you can add Miami to that list.
But there is one other reason that I’m sure Vogel is relatively comfortable with this series becoming a best of three: he thinks he has the better team. After the Magic mounted a furious 19-point comeback to send Game 4 of their first-round series into overtime, Vogel told us reporters what he said to his team before the extra time. “We feel like we’re the better basketball team — five more minutes is in our favor.” If you’re the better team for 48 minutes, you should still be the better team for 53 minutes. That was the same mind set had before Game 5. Without Chris Bosh, Vogel believes his team should win. That, he believes, was the case over seven games, and nothing changes when it becomes only three.
I have to say I would agree with his belief.
The Pacers are a better team than a Bosh-less Heat. But even without their third All-Star, Miami at its absolute best is still better than the Pacers at their peak. This “absolute best” means that LeBron and Wade both play as well, if not better, than they did in Game 4 while a few other guys step up, making threes, controlling the glass and playing high-level defense. A Heat team playing like that simply cannot be beat but the Pacers.
But … that team is very unlikely to show up tonight.
Instead, what we are most likely to see is both teams playing somewhere between 60%-80% of what their “perfect game” potential is, and Vogel is likely correct in thinking that his team is better if both teams play somewhere in that range. To do so, here are the key points they need to focus on.
1. Pick-and-Roll Defense
We already (over)analyzed how they had been defending Miami’s screen/roll attack during the first three games of the series. This largely didn’t change in Game 4 — until it did. In the fourth quarter, when Wade and LeBron were absolutely killing the Pacers, the team mixed things up. Rather than have the roll man’s defender drop down into the paint to protect it from any penetration, that defender pressured the ball-handler. This, in turn, left the roll man open. In four separate instances, this was Udonis Haslem. He didn’t roll, however. He popped. (Well, the first one was sort of a “pick and then meander into the lane before strolling over to the baseline). And he knocked down four straight mid-range jumpers. It’s not that this is a strategy that can’t work. It’s just that everyone needs to be on the same page. When David West tried to force the ball out of Wade and LeBron’s hands, nobody really paid any mind to Haslem. Somebody needs to rotate. And if West is going to not stay with Haslem, he needs to put more pressure on the ball-handler than he does on the second play in this clip. That’s just the worst of both worlds: no urgency put on Wade and nobody covering Haslem.
2. Limiting Role-Player Three-Pointers
Again, we’ve been over how leaving Miami’s role players open for threes would likely come back to bite them. And early in Game 4, it did. The Heat only took three triples in the opening quarter, but they all went in. Shane Battier couldn’t have been more open when he hit his, which did happen in a broken transition situation. But the two that Mario Chalmers hit were equally open and both came off simple pin-down screens by Joel Anthony. George Hill reacted as if he had never seen an off-ball screen before. The result was that what had been an early onslaught by the Pacers (albeit one that could have had a much more lasting effect on the game had they not displayed such poor shot selection) was minimized because the Heat role player were chipping away at the lead by hitting wide-open threes.
3. Staying With Cutters
This follows the poor defense Hill played early on Chalmers and is more basketball 101. When the Heat were decimating the Pacers in the third quarter, and Wade was returning to his Finals MVP-caliber play, a lot of it was because he and LeBron were just finding each other open after Pacers’ defenders lost them on cuts. It’s pretty bad to lose Chalmers 25 feet from the hoop just because you weren’t really paying attention, sure. But it’s just unacceptable to let Dwyane Wade duck in directly under the basket for a layup. Five of Miami’s 10 FGs during the third were assisted. At least three of these were finishes in the paint after passes from either LeBron to Wade or Wade to LeBron
4. Get Your Ass in the Paint
This goes without saying. In part due to foul trouble, but in part due to the team drifting away from what they’re best at, the Pacers got away from running the offense through the front court. Of course West and Hibbert need more than a combined 11 shots in the second half, but its more important that they get touches and put enough pressure on the Heat defense that it is either forced to help or rotate. It is when the Pacers are at their best. And we know they need to play somewhere approaching that level to win on the road against a team this dangerous.
5. Respond — Don’t Just Duck & Cover
Inevitably, in Miami, the Heat are going to go on a major run at some point during Game 5. The worst of it came in the third quarter during Game 4. The Pacers went into a fetal position and their offense completely broke down. They committed 7 turnovers and missed 12-of-18 shots in the period. If it wasn’t for two really nice plays to close the quarter by Granger (and Tyler Hansbrough, who knocked down the jumper Danny set up for him) and Darren Collison (who unbelievably ripped the ball out of LeBron’s hands and smoke everyone down court for a layup), Indiana would have been out-scored 30-12 in the third. That is the type of offensive inertia that lost them Game 1 against Orlando, let Orlando force an overtime in Game 4 and cost them Game 1 against Miami. LeBron is going to be amazing at times. But the Pacers need to realize that what he does on the other end with the ball has nothing to do with their offense. A mentally tough team blocks out the previous defensive sequence and executes on its own side of the court. Indian must.