In 49 states it’s basketball, but not in Indiana. A sense of pride is ingrained in all Hoosiers that grow up in the state loving the game — a pride that simply says, “The rest of y’all just don’t understand.” Whether its the fact that our tiny state has 9 of the 10 largest high school gyms in the country, or that legends like John Wooden, Oscar Robinson, Larry Bird, and others call our state home, the fact remains — it’s more than basketball in Indiana.
As the 2013 Indiana Pacers continue their postseason run, it’s impossible for most outsiders to not to think about Milan High School, Bobby Plump, and every other Cinderella story we’ve come to know and love.
The comparison is easy, if not cliched. Here’s another “Cinderella” team that’s thriving on great defense and team basketball, even though it’s severely outmatched. The fact that the Pacers play in Indiana cements the analogy.
The problem is that the comparison is dead wrong.
While this year’s Pacers do play great defense — the best in the NBA — and do score the ball as a team, they are much more similar to the 2010 Butler Bulldogs than they are to Milan High.
You will remember that the 2010 Bulldogs came within a quarter of an inch of beating the vaunted Duke Blue Devils for the National Championship. You will remember that Butler was the smallest school in 40 years to make it to the title game. You will remember that they quickly became America’s darlings and one of our favorite “Cinderella” teams ever.
What you might forget is that the 2010 Butler Bulldogs were ridiculously loaded.
The team included three All-Conference performers, two All-Conference defenders, the defensive player of the year, a Wooden Award finalist, three future pros, and the best young coach in all of college basketball. Looking back, the Bulldog team compared very favorably to the heavily favored Blue Devils, and definitely had the best player in the matchup in Gordon Hayward. (Just this week, Chad Ford mused that if the 2010 NBA Draft could be redrafted, Hayward would be picked fifth behind Paul George, John Wall, Greg Monroe, and Derrick Favors). Fans that had watched Butler all year knew how good they were – it just took the rest of the world a while to realize it.
This year’s Pacers team couldn’t be more similar.
After a better-than-expected, lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the 2013 Pacers faced numerous questions. Danny Granger was injured, their bench was depleted, and the rest of the Eastern Conference (namely, New York and Brooklyn) only seemed to be getting better.
A rough winter saw Paul George and Lance Stephenson struggle to find their roles in the absence of Granger while Roy Hibbert seemed to be sleep walking through a classic “I just signed a massive contract and I don’t care anymore” type of year. Many people wrote off the Pacers as a cute story from the year before and stopped paying attention.
In the playoffs, as the Pacers have again popped up on the casual fan’s radar, the common notion is not that the Pacers are two games away from going to the NBA Finals. Throughout, the national story lines have focused on (1) the Pacers stumbling in Atlanta against a non-threatening Hawks team (if there even was a story about that series), (2) the Knicks choking while losing to Indy, (3) the refs being comically bad as the Pacers stay even with the Heat.
Not only is all of that unfair, it’s also missing the point.
This Pacers’ team is more loaded than you might think, and just because their game may not be pretty, that doesn’t mean it isn’t brutally efficient and wonderfully effective.
Not unlike Butler’s Brad Stephens, Vogel is a young, defensive mastermind that has built his team’s identity around a steely resolve and the league’s best defense. Among everything else that happened Tuesday night (Joey Crawford topping himself yet again, Lance Stephenson’s throwback Rex Chapman buzzer beater, and LeBron James volleyball-ing George Hill’s finger roll into the fourth row), the Pacers again showed a toughness uncommon for a team so young.
After jumping out to an 11-0 lead and seemingly dominating the first half, the Pacers only entered halftime with a one-point lead. The Heat came out in the third quarter, ratcheted up the defense, and took a 60-54 lead five minutes in. It looked as if the season was on the brink. Instead, Vogel called time out and rallied his troops into holding Miami scoreless for the next 3:23 of game action.
Later in the fourth, the Pacers seemed to be victimized by one of the worst missed calls in recent memory. Somehow, three officials failed to see Roy Hibbert’s jumper hit the rim and, in the next breath, called a questionable foul on Lance Stephenson — his fifth of the game. In a matter of moments, an 11-point lead was cut to seven, and fifteen-seconds later, DJ Augustin put the Heat in the penalty for the final 7:54 of game action. Once again, the Pacers failed to fold. They tightened up their defense and held the Heat to one free throw the rest of the game. Not even a pair of LeBron James 3-pointers or a Ray Allen prayer from the corner would derail them.
Roy Hibbert’s early season “struggles” are almost comical to think about at this point. I even wondered aloud early last week whether Frank Vogel purposefully “rope-a-doped” us all year with Hibbert by limiting his minutes (Hibbert’s playing time in the playoffs has jumped from 28 to 36 minutes per game) to keep him fresh for the playoff push. After reaching the 20-10 (point-rebound) plateau only seven times all season, he has done it three times in four games against the Heat (posting a 19-9 in the only game he missed the mark).
Whatever the case, Miami simply cannot guard Hibbert in this series – but this isn’t all that new. Hibbert abused First Team All-Defense winner Tyson Chandler in round two after also performing quite well in round one against Al Horford. For the playoffs, he’s averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds with 2 blocks — plus countless altered shots every game.
By any metric, Chris Bosh has had the much better career of the two big men, but Roy Hibbert, over the last month and a half, has simply been a better player. Bosh is only averaging 13.5 points per game on nearly as many shots while pulling down less than 7 rebounds a game. In this series, the tallest member of Miami’s “big three” has barely pulled down 4 rebounds a game. (In seven games this year against the Pacers, Bosh has grabbed a pitiful 23 total rebounds, a number that Lance Stephenson, Indiana’s shooting guard, has exceeded in this series alone). It’s not simply that Hibbert has “gotten big” and “outplayed” Chris Bosh. At this point — right now in May of 2013 — Roy Hibbert is just plain better than Chris Bosh. And that’s before we consider Ol’ Roy’s defense (a mismatch between the two players of seismic proportions).
On the opposite block, Miami’s other bigs — Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen, and Shane Battier, etc. — are simply no match for Mr. David West. Overall, the duo of Hibbert/Haslem has outscored the Bosh/Haslem/Battier/Andersen/Anthony quintet 165 to 128.
By any metric, the Pacers’ bigs are not merely outplaying their counterparts from Miami; they are plain better.
But you knew this already. What about the rest of the Pacers?
The Hometown Kid
One matchup we knew would be critical in this series was the point guard showdown between George Hill and Miami’s Mario Chalmers/Norris Cole combo. Defensively, both sides offer different values. Chalmers and Cole are able to pressure the ball full-court and have created several turnovers while defending Indiana’s suspect ball-handling guards. On the other side, Hill is long and strong, enabling the Pacers to play him at either guard spot and have him defend multiple positions.
However, the real key has been on the offensive side. To this point, Hill has played the combo of Chalmers/Cole almost to a standstill (he’s been outscored by the two of them 64-61). In the playoffs, he’s averaged 16 points, 4 assists, and 4 rebounds with 1 steal thrown in for good measure.
(That’s two more points and only one less rebound than what Dwyane Wade has averaged this spring. In fact, the Pacers have four guys – Hibbert, West, George, and Hill – that are averaging more points per game in the playoffs than both Bosh and Wade.)
Most importantly, Hill is really the engine that drives this Pacers team. As you saw when he missed Game 5 of the Knicks’ series, the Pacers offense is quite lost without him. Say what you want about Hill’s shortcomings (his average ball-handling, his occasional lapses in judgment, the insane idea to drive right at LeBron James to attempt a finger roll), he is the perfect player for this team. Like Hibbert, he’s upped his scoring by almost two points in the post-season.
He’s not merely “outplaying” Miami’s point guards; he’s better.
This is where it really gets interesting. Just like with the Hibbert/Bosh comparison above, it would be foolish to compare Lance Stephenson’s career with Dwyane Wade’s. Obviously, Flash will go down as one of the all-time great shooting guards and is a surefire Hall of Famer.
But here? Now? Is it really that much of a mismatch for Miami?
Is it even a mismatch at all?
For the series, Wade has averaged six more points and two more assists than Stephenson while being outrebounded by two boards per game. However, if you throw out Stephenson’s stinker of a Game 3, the numbers are much closer. More importantly, Stephenson has outplayed Wade in the fourth quarters on both ends of the floor, not only guarding LeBron during a crucial stretch in Game 4, but also keeping pace with Wade’s scoring in Games 2, 3 and 4 while hitting several big shots for the Pacers. Lance’s quarter-ending 3-pointer last night gave the Pacers some necessary breathing room for the fourth, and his 18-footer to tie the game at 89 made sure the Pacers didn’t falter down the stretch. It was also his runner, with 1:01, left in the game that practically sealed the deal for the Pacers (especially once the King fouled out five seconds later).
Remember: This is his first professional postseason.
None of this accounts for the fearless confidence that Lance has brought to the Pacers as well. Repeatedly in Game 4, Lance made certain to attack mismatches whenever they presented themselves, while Wade appeared to be limping through the spotlight. Athletically, Wade simply cannot stay with Stephenson right now, and the Heat have chosen rather to have Wade stay with the more slight Paul George or even defend George Hill.
Stephenson may not be better than Wade yet. But he’s not getting soundly outplayed by him either.
You could count the number of NBA teams that could say that about their shooting guard on one hand.
Of course, the Heat still do have one advantage in this series, and he happens to be the greatest player on earth. It’s simple: nobody on the planet can stop LeBron James other than LeBron James.
Still, Paul George can do as good of a job on him as anyone.
After turning in two Superman-like performances in Games 1 and 2, LeBron has simply been “really good,” production-wise in Games 3 and 4. His field-goal percentage has dropped for three consecutive games, as have his free-throw attempts. He’s also settling for far more 3-pointers in this series than he had all season, let alone the playoffs. (James has attempted 21 threes through four games after shooting just 28 in the previous nine). His playmaking has also decreased. Since dropping 10 dimes in the opener, he’s been limited to 11 total in the last three games while also not approaching his rebounding total from Game 1.
Of course, James’ play in the post in Game 3 was the most devastating aspect of the Heat’s blowout win — individual production be damned —and Paul George has also produced less as the series has gone. After averaging 25 points in Games 1 and 2, he scored 25 total at home in Games 3 and 4.
Still, the fact remains: While George has worn down playing against LeBron, the Chosen One has worn down as well.
I don’t know of a higher compliment I could ever give a player than this: Paul George has directly caused the greatest player on earth to become markedly less efficient and more human.
The story coming in was simple: The Miami Heat had the three best players in the series, and while the Pacers were playing well, theirs was a story that would soon end. What has unfolded is quite contrary. Miami still has the best player in the series (and it’s really not close), but Indiana just might have the next four best players. It’s quite hard, by any metric, to claim that Wade and Bosh are any better, right now, than Hibbert, George, West, or Hill.
As 8p9s editor Jared Wade wrote after Game 2, “Miami had to rely on one guy late and he didn’t deliver while Indiana had four players in the final period score go-ahead points. Quite the luxury.”
This isn’t Hoosiers. Jimmy Chitwood isn’t walking through that door.
This Pacers team is loaded, and they deserve every bit of credit they are getting.
Actually, now that I think about it, Jimmy Chitwood just might be playing in this series — for the Heat. And if LeBron isn’t able to go all Bobby Plump on us, the more stacked team – the Pacers – will probably win.