In many ways, both Indiana and Miami just had the perfect sparring partners to warm up for their Eastern Conference Finals matchup. The Knicks are a worse, but similar, spread offense compared to the Heat, and the Bulls are a worse, but similar, facsimile of the rugged, large, defensive team that the Pacers have evolved into.
Indiana was able to crack New York’s code in part because they got the Knicks to relinquish their advantage. When Mike Woodson went with Kenyon Martin as a starter over Pablo Prigioni in Game 4, he relinquished some of his team’s identity.
If the Pacers want to upset the Heat, that same factor must at least cross Erik Spoelstra’s mind.
The Heat have become so great for two main reasons: (1) LeBron James is the best player since MJ, and (2) they have surrounded him with shooters and created an offense that is so spread out that it is impossible to defend entirely.
If a team packs the paint and takes away penetration to the rim, they rain threes. If they stay home on shooters, LeBron and Wade decimate the interior, either scoring themselves or driving and kicking so well that the shooters find a way to get open anyway.
It if nearly impossible to stop.
The Pacers, then, need to do two things.
They must, must, must punish the Heat for putting so many shooters on the floor. If Miami continues to maintain it’s “pace-and-space” style, David West specifically and Roy Hibbert as well must score. It can’t be missing inside shots. They need to produce. It’s cut and dry. If they don’t, this series is over before it starts.
The other thing they must do is find a way to minimize the disadvantage that playing big creates on the other end. The Heat will ultimately end up using a LeBron/Wade/Ray Allen/Shane Battier/Chris Bosh lineup a fair amount.
The Allen/Battier lineup next to the Big Three is the manifestation of Spoelstra’s “pace-and-space” ideal. And while it primarily was deployed in the fourth quarter this season, it’d be a surprise if Spoelstra waited that long to stretch the Pacers’ defense thin. Sure, [Norris] Cole has done a fine Allen impression from deep in the playoffs (11-for-16 from 3-point range), but nothing’s better than the real thing.
The first three things on the to-do list for the Heat should read: “Get Hibbert in foul trouble. Get Hibbert in foul trouble. Get Hibbert in foul trouble.” It was key in their series last postseason, when the Heat were minus-26 with Hibbert on the floor and plus-65 with him on the bench. In this series, the Heat’s super-spacey lineups will be instrumental in getting Hibbert out of the paint and on the move. That’s where Hibbert, quite literally, runs into trouble.
To exploit Hibbert’s cement-filled shoes, the Heat will have to create space and open up lanes for basket cuts and basket attacks. For this to happen, the extra 10 feet of difference between Udonis Haslem hanging out in the short corner and Battier waiting in the “long” corner will be pivotal. Haslem may get the start, but he won’t be trusted to finish. That’s where Battier and Allen should come in. (Side note: It might be counterintuitive, but the Heat’s most foul-inducing lineups tend to feature Allen and Battier, who aren’t elite foul-drawers. Spacing, again, is key.)
The presence of Allen and Battier also will help to avoid the temptation of living in the mid-range. The Heat can’t afford to fall in love with the mid-range jumper like they did in the third and final game of the regular-season series between these two teams.
Yes, the Heat won by 14 points in that game, but that might be a bit of fool’s gold. The Heat shot an unsustainable 17-for-31 (54.8 percent) on mid-range jumpers in that one. In fact, the Heat fired up as many mid-range jumpers as shots at the rim and 3-pointers combined. An overreliance on low-percentage shots is precisely what Frank Vogel’s defense wants.
For Indiana, the opposite is true.
They cannot — cannot, cannot — let Hibbert get in foul trouble. But even if they avoid that, they need to figure out who he defends and how he can stay out on the court to be an asset at both ends, not a defensive liability who may or may not score.
I know that sounds weird: The Pacers smacked the Knicks in large part due to Roy’s amazing defense at the rim. But the Heat, unlike the Knicks — which had Tyson Chandler and other slow-moving, non-threatening bigs for Hibbert to defend — will not allow Hibbert to hang back. Or, if Frank Vogel does continue to have him hang back, it will come with the understanding that Bosh or Battier will have open shots.
That may be fine. Keeping Roy as close to the rim as possible, even as Bosh floats out to — or beyond — the three-point line might be fine. See if Bosh can hit 10-for-15 every night from 20 feet. Or, maybe you stick Roy on Shane, who will spend a lot of time in the weakside corner. From there, Hibbert can better reposition himself under the hoop, sliding over from the baseline rather than trying to back-pedal from around the free-throw line as Bosh stands more towards the middle of the court. Then as Roy rotates to the rim, you can have wing defenders (Lance Stephenson and Paul George) drop to the corner to contest a Battier three. Or, hell, just let Shane shoot. If he’s taking 12 threes a game, that’s 12 shots not being taken by LeBron and Wade. Maybe he makes 5 or 6 and you lose that way. But it’s an option.
Who knows how they’ll defend it?
My Xs and Os knowledge falls apart if we discuss rotations and tactics much further than this. But it will be a conundrum for Indiana: How do you ensure that the post-up, offensive rebounding and paint-defense advantages you have don’t lead to holes elsewhere?
How do you ensure your strength doesn’t become a vulnerability.
But what the Pacers really need to do is to make that same question loom large in the mind of Erik Spoelstra and the Heat.