Tonight, in the Fieldhouse, the Indiana Pacers face elimination at the hands of the Miami Heat. Just a few days ago, the Pacers were perfectly positioned to take control of the series, and really, move onto the Eastern Conference Finals. On a day where nothing short of greatness from LeBron James and Dwayne Wade could change the direction of their season, the Miami duo delivered. Two days later in Miami, the Heat rolled, and the Pacers basically rolled over.
And here we sit.
So heading into tonight’s game, here are my thoughts on a few things.
Danny Has To Be Effective
In my opinion, the Pacers’ chances begin with this, and they’ll end with it if he’s limited. The Pacers need him to be able to hit shots, and they need him to be able to chase LeBron. But mostly, they just need him.
When Granger went down on Tuesday night, the Pacers staggered. While it’s true they hadn’t played well up to that point, Indiana was still within a bucket when it happened. Also, they probably hadn’t played as poorly as they did in the first half of Game 2 — which they ended up winning. For all the flak Danny gets, he’s crucial to this team. Put simply, they are significantly less talented without him. But more that that they are incomplete. This illustrates a point that I’ve been trying (and failing) to make all season: the Pacers are actually more susceptible to injury, generally, because they rely on more players.
Consider this: For Miami to be a good (read: playoff team), they basically just need LeBron to be healthy and productive. To be a threat to win the Eastern Conference title and perhaps even an NBA title, they need LeBron and one of either Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh to be healthy and productive. (I’m not sure that it matters which.) If they have all three, then they are favorites in the East, and at least even favorite versus anyone in the West for the title. In effect, as long as they don’t lose LeBron, they are better than most teams.
For Indiana to play at this level, however, they pretty much need their top six players (Granger, David West, Roy Hibbert, George Hill, Paul George, and Darren Collison) to play well. In addition, they probably need a good contribution from Leandro Barbosa, and they need the rest of the bench (Hansbrough, Amundson, Jones) to at least tread water. While they have more bodies that help, that’s also more pain for the whole when any one is either hurt or unproductive.
Further, they are built this way. This probably goes a long way towards explaining their propensity for what fellow contributor Jeremy Comstock called “vomit inducing losses.” They lean on each other so much, that when one falls, they all fall. And while they’re all important, Danny Granger probably bears more weight in this foundation than any player, with the possible exception of David West.
Does that mean that the Pacers would have won Tuesday, or will win tonight, if Danny were healthy? No. It just means that I can’t see them winning without him being a meaningful contributor.
The Suspensions Are Irrelevant
There was a bunch of hubbub about the flagrant fouls on Tuesday night, and the NBA came out with further punishment yesterday. None of the players involved are of any significant meaning to the series.
Udonis Haslem suspended for Game 6 - At one point in his career, the loss of Haslem would have been crippling. I don’t think that’s true any more. Though some will point to his Game 4 performance, I will argue that while his points hurt, the Pacers were beaten by the outrageous performances of James and Wade. James and Wade are the difference. Haslem is not.
Tyler Hansbrough upgraded to Flagrant 2, will play in Game 6 – I’m sure many Pacer fans will argue, but I don’t see Tyler as a factor. He will play, and because of that, he has the chance to make a difference. I just don’ t think he can or will. After scoring 22 points on 10-for-19 shooting in his playoff debut, Tyler has averaged 5.6 points on 31% shooting over his last 14 playoff games. This playoffs, the Pacers are a net 10 points per 100 worse with Tyler on the floor, and their overall rebounding percentage drops from 54.3% to 47.6%. I see his reprieve as no real cause for celebration.
Dexter Pittman suspended for three (3) games - Really. Does anybody care?
Were these penalties appropriate? My opinion isn’t of any consequence, which is why it’s so easy to give it. I’d say Haslem’s appropriate, Tyler’s too light, and Pittman’s way too light.
My take on the fouls committed by both Haslem and Hansbrough is that they were defacto punches. Haslem has no real grounds for defense, and the fact that he caught Tyler in the shoulder instead of the face is really just happenstance. Given the size and motion of the players, the force involved in the blow was probably greater than any punch that I — or most of the people watching — could throw. It was intentional, and it was clearly retaliation. Plus, Miami had probably used up their get out of jail free card when Wade was not suspended for Game 3.
Hansbrough’s situation is fuzzier, and many don’t feel it warrants a suspension. That’s fine. His play was much closer to an actual basketball play, and he did pretty clearly get the ball. However, for me, that’s a pretty thin fig leaf. The full chopping down motion is the killer for me. It, too was unnecessary, and it wasn’t even a good basketball play. Again, you have a 6-foot-9-inch, 250-lb man swinging his arm with full force. Anybody care to guess what kind of damage that’s capable of doing? You can’t swing like that on a basketball court. You just can’t.
Pittman? Well, Pittman himself is unimportant in virtually every aspect. His sole purpose for being seems to be simply to keep the ground underneath him from flying into the air. However, the concept of a meaningless scrub headhunting on the basketball court isn’t. Seems to me that it would have been a great opportunity to send a message — pour encourager les autres — to all those guys who think they have nothing to lose by doing something like that, no, really, you do. But … that probably would get resistance from the NBPA, and there’s really nothing that will prevent someone from being absolutely committed to stupidity.
S-O-F-T is a S-T-A-T-E of M-I-N-D
Being involved in sports — as a participant, coach, or spectator — is in no small part an exercise in immersing yourself in a slurry made up of testosterone and macho bullshit. None of us are immune, and if we were all honest, we’d all admit that we like that part of it — a lot. So, naturally, when Larry Bird called his team “soft,” then helped Jared out by spelling it for him, it created quite the buzz.
These comments are viewed largely in the context of the flagrant fouls discussed above, and many wonder if the Pacer prez wants to see some retaliation. Given the nature of sports — how things were occasionally handled when Bird played — it’s easy to get there. While that may be want Bird meant, I actually took it completely differently.
I viewed it from the perspective of the way the Pacers had played the game mentally — especially after Granger left. The team staggered, and was timid and indecisive in almost every move. They were stagnant, made sloppy passes, sloppy cuts, sloppy rotations defensively. They didn’t even create any 50/50 balls, let alone get them.
After the Game 1 loss to Orlando, I spoke about the Pacers’ need to attack. In a podcast this weekend for the Heartland Summer Series, I said that the Pacers and Vogel always focused on doing what they do and being who they are, as opposed to wins or losses. That didn’t happen Tuesday. They stopped being the Pacers. Some of that was driven by Danny leaving them incomplete, but I can understand Bird’s disappointment when it certainly appeared that his team simply packed their bags in the third quarter, and waited for the game to end.
It’s important to note that the difference between S-O-F-T and S-T-R-O-N-G has little to do with cheap shots or retaliation. It has everything to do with maintaining composure and focus, and playing with force. More than anything else, I took Bird’s words to be telling his players, “You’re better than this.”
Because they are.
Points in the Paint
A big subject for the series has been the Pacers’ size advantage with Roy Hibbert and David West, and there’s no doubt those two have been key in the wins. A key metric in this discussion has been points in the paint (PitP), and there are some things to keep in mind about that.
First, as Charles Barkley pointed out on Tuesday’s pre-game show, “points in the paint” means points scored in the paint, regardless of the action. Therefore, fast break dunks and layups count as PitP. On Tuesday, Miami outscored the Pacers in the paint by 20, which corresponded pretty directly to their 22-2 advantage in fast break points.
Second, Miami — while “smaller” — was one of the best interior defensive teams in the league. I discussed this in the spiderwebs, but it’s also evident in the fact that they allowed the second fewest PitP in the league this season, at around 36.6 per game. The are extremely adept at fronting the post while bullying the passer, and that’s very difficult for a team like Indiana to defeat.
Third, Miami is very good at scoring PitP — finishing 8th in the NBA this season. Both LeBron James (758) and Dwyane Wade (572) had more PitP than either Roy Hibbert (564) or David West (424). While some of that is purely a function of the fact that James and Wade are higher volume scorers, it’s also a good reminder that coming into the paint is at least as big a factor in PitP as being in the paint.
Finally, Indiana — though big — is only a middle-of-the-road PitP team, ranking 13th at about 41.2 per game. Only about 42% of their points come from the paint, largely because their offense is predicated on probing the defense with a post pass or pick-and-roll/backdown, then reversing the ball to catch the defense rotating. The Pacer offense works best when the “second side” is getting a lot of action. While that translates to good shots, not all are in the paint.
In the Orlando series, I said Indy needed to win these categories: PitP and fastbreak points. The mind set I outlined is still necessary, but when we measure, we need to see the Pacers keep pace with Miami in these categories. If they can, then I don’t believe Miami will be able to separate from Indiana, and the Pacers will have a much better shot at a win.
What’s Gonna Happen Tonight?
The short answer is, “I don’t know.” However, as much as it pains me to write this, I think the Pacers’ season ends tonight.
For whatever else you think of them, Miami is an easy team to fear. If James and Wade deliver strong games, then I think it’s just a question of the final score. As I type this — with no inside knowledge whatsoever — I am not expecting Danny Granger to be effective tonight, and I think that will be too much to overcome.
Still, that’s an intellectual assessment. The Pacers are capable of winning this game — regardless of Danny’s condition — and I still have hope that they will. The series? Well, get it to a Game 7 and then we’ll worry about it.
For tonight, I say the Pacers need to be who they have proven to be, and see what happens.