As a basketball fan, there was a lot to love about last night’s contest in Miami. The matchup between Paul George and LeBron James was as good as advertised, with each player submitting super-efficient, well-rounded games. George finished with 25 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 steals on 50% shooting. LeBron answered with 24 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, and 3 steals on 57% shooting.
These will be two of your Eastern Conference All-Star starters — and for good reason.
The X-factor wound up being Dwyane Wade, whose 7 points over the last 6minutes helped the Heat finish the game on a 19-10 run, all against Indiana’s vaunted starting lineup.
What exactly did Miami do in order to manhandle what arguably has been the best five-man unit in the NBA over the past two years? They did something they almost never do: They went big.
For the first significant amount of time this season (and from the looks of it, last year as well), Miami played a lineup of Chris Anderson, Chris Bosh, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Ray Allen. Maybe King James told Spoelstra not to play Mario Chalmers in the 4th quarter after this argument midway through the second half …
But it’s more likely that the Heat simply decided to neutralize Indiana’s biggest advantage — their size — by going big themselves. This was so interesting because in the past Miami has been hesitant to play two bigs against the Pacers for a couple of reasons.
First, when you are the best team in the NBA, it sends a weird message to your team that you have to adjust to someone else. (Frank Vogel got killed for this very reason after he benched Roy Hibbert on the final play of Indiana’s Game 1 loss to Miami last playoffs.)
Miami’s philosophy has always been, “We are better than you, we play how we play, and we will make you adjust to us.” And yet, the Pacers are no longer just a good team that creates a difficult matchup for the Heat. With the rise of Paul George and Lance Stephenson, the Pacers are now a great team that Miami struggles to defend.
The other reason Miami previously has been hesitant to play with two bigs is because it absolutely destroys the floor spacing that their entire offensive philosophy is predicated on. With Anderson in the game, the lane is clogged, making it more difficult for Wade and LeBron to get to the basket. Add in Wade’s shaky long-range shooting and playing big actually seemed to play into Indiana’s strength — defending the rim.
Miami may have found something last night by subbing in Ray Allen for the point guard.
With LeBron shooting more than 40% from long distance this year, the new Heat lineup still had three high-level perimeter shooters — in Allen, Bosh, and James — on the floor. Interestingly enough, LeBron changed his game over the last 6 minutes. In fact, after twice abusing the hapless Luis Scola on the perimeter, he took zero shots over the final 6:12 of game action. Instead, he chose to attack the Indiana offense by facilitating and spacing the floor, picking up 4 of his 7 assists in the final 6 minutes.
The biggest reason this worked, though, was that it created a mismatch at one of the guard spots for Indiana. George Hill, a good to excellent defender on most point guards in the NBA, got stuck trying to guard Dwyane Wade on an extremely important possession. The result was a simple Wade post up and one of his easiest baskets of the night. As good as Hill is normally, asking him to guard Wade is just too tall a task.
Nobody in the NBA can stop Wade when he’s playing well, but Lance Stephenson does about as good a job as anyone. Wade has played 72 minutes against the Pacers this season. In the 62 minutes that Lance has also been on the floor, Wade is 15-of-31 with an eFG% of 48.4%. That’s a solid mark for a slashing and jump-shooting guard, but it’s something the Pacers can live with. Wade is also -19 in those 62 minutes. In the 10 minutes that he’s played with Lance on the bench, it’s been a different story entirely. He’s been 6-of-8 with an eFG% of 75%, an astronomical rise in shooting. Of course, 10 minutes is an incredibly small sample size, but anyone would tell you that Lance is the Pacers’ best defensive counter for Wade, presuming Paul George is busy grappling with LeBron.
Last night was pretty indicative of what typically happens for Wade against the Pacers. He was 15 of 25 on the night with five buckets in transition, where there was no clear matchup. He hit another five of his shots vs. Paul George and the aforementioned bunny against George Hill, leaving only four times where he scored while being guarded by Lance Stephenson. Of his ten misses, half of them came while being defended by Born Ready (with three of those being helped by some Roy Hibbert screen protection).
So what can the Pacers do to counter Miami’s bigger lineup? They may not have to do much. As noted, it was 6 minutes of one game in mid-December; nobody should freak out. However, one should acknowledge the obvious matchup difficulty that Miami’s adjustment created.
Could Danny Granger provide a solution?
The Pacers absolutely need either George Hill or C.J. Watson in the game against Miami’s ball-pressuring point guards — just think back to D.J. Augustin’s struggles even advancing the ball up the court last postseason. But if Allen is in the game, Lance Stephenson and Paul George would be more than capable of getting Indiana into their sets. It’s unlikely that LeBron or Wade would provide full-court pressure at any point of a game, but especially late in the fourth quarter. The addition of Granger could allow Lance and George to remain on Wade and LeBron, while Granger himself could add more length while chasing Ray Allen around screens. Offensively, the Pacers might actually be better, as Granger’s outside shooting would provide even more floor spacing and size than both Hill and Watson.
Of course this is all hypothetical. And alternatively, Vogel may be better served by putting Hill on Allen and letting Stephenson continue guarding Wade.
Ultimately, the beauty of these Pacers/Heat games is two-fold: the incredibly high level at which each team plays the game mixed with the awesome matchup problems each creates with its opponent. We now have yet another wrinkle.
Topics: Pacers/Heat Rivalry