Indiana doesn’t have an effective offense, but it sure looked that way in Game 1. They can thank the Heat for that.
The Pacers didn’t need a structured attack in Game 1, because they instead spent the whole game reacting to weak Miami ball pressure, counter attacking every hapless double team with an array of open jumpers, layups, and dribble drives.
The results couldn’t have been more impressive.
By finishing with 107 points, on 51.5% shooting, it was easily the Pacers’ best scoring game of the playoffs. And after a Wizards series in which they finished nearly half their quarters (11 of 24, precisely) scoring 20 points or fewer, it was almost hard to believe this was the same team.
They never lapsed, never went through the long pointless — in two ways — droughts that have become nearly as expected as their stretches of defensive prowess. By quarter, Indiana hung 30, 25, 28, and 24 points on the Heat. That prolonged, consistent production is very rare for this team.
Hot early shooting helped, particularly as George Hill stuck his first 3 triples. Drawing fouls was huge, including on Miami personal on Indiana’s first four possessions of the third quarter. Paul George’s refusal to settle for contested jumpers kept wasted possessions minimal, and Lance Stephenson’s brilliant decision- and play-making kept Miami’s defense off guard.
More than anything, though, the Pacers were able to turn what is normally the Heat’s greatest defensive strength into its biggest weakness.
The Heat’s Defensive System
Erik Spoelstra’s defensive system calls for defenders to put heavy pressure on the ball handler, and trap the dribble aggressively after a pick and roll. Manned by a relatively position-less, small-ball personnel of interchangeable players, the Heat can approach every pick and roll the same, not caring whether it is a center screening for a point guard or two wing players running the action.
It usually is highly effective, either forcing turnovers or making the ball handler to retreat to avoid the double team. Turnovers ignite the team’s lethal fast break while the general disruption messes with offensive flow and timing while taking a few precious seconds off the shot clock.
The defense then rotates back, and the pick-and-roll action that so many teams use to initiate their sets has been neutered. Even if the offensive players handle it well, the players involved in the screen/roll action often wind up far away from where they are accustomed to being — making any attempt to reinitiate the set unfamiliar and ad hoc.
Basically, the Heat toss some chaos into the beginning of the set, and use their mix of athleticism and quickness to destroy the precision and poise of the offense. It works: Miami forced the highest percentage of turnovers of any team in the NBA this year, while finishing 11th in points allowed per possession, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
There is a reason Miami has been to three straight Finals, and it isn’t solely because the team signed LeBron and his two buddies.
Erik Spoelstra is an innovative coach whose deft mind put together a system that works well with small personnel on both ends of the floor. His spread offense — with its ability to thrive while using a rotating clone army of shooters — gets more publicity, but the turnovers and chaos created by the team’s defensive pressure is what so often fuels the big runs that decapitate the opposition.
How the Pacers Destroyed the Heat’s Defense
Miami applied its pressure poorly in Game 1. They were lackluster, lethargic, and often looked like they were merely going through the motions rather than attacking the ball handler in earnest.
Against such a weak force, the high pick and roll became the Pacers’ best friend.
Indiana’s ballhandlers — most notably Lance Stephenson, but also Paul George and George Hill — simply avoided the small, initial threat and tossed a pass to the roll man. Time and again they did this, creating a 4-on-3 situation in the half court.
Especially when David West was the roll man, the Pacers carved up Miami.
West could take the jumper or attack off the dribble. Or when help rotated over, he could make the easy pass to the open man. This led to 3s, layups, and high-percentage shots for the other players on the court, all of whom did a better-than-normal job of maintaining good spacing to further compromise the defense.
After looking at the film, Spoelstra would probably prefer no pressure to the type Miami applied in Game 1. In addition to continually giving Indiana a 4-on-3, the after-pressure action also created ball and player movement — something the Jekyll-and-Hyde Pacers struggle to maintain for long stretches. Instead of stand-still stagnation and a lot of time to (over)think, the Pacers were prodded into rapid decision making and quick play. They seemingly made all the correct choices, all the right cuts.
Seeing all this, Spoelstra has to wonder if simply hanging back would be the better strategy. Making the usually careless Pacers initiate the fight could arguably force more turnovers and would almost certainly lead to less ball movement and fewer open shots.
Of course, the Heat won’t significantly alter the way they play: They’ll reaffirm the need to do what they but just do it better, as Spo said post-game. But it has to hurt to know that Indiana’s offensive success was less about its players executing crafty sets and more about the Pacers exploiting a Miami aggression that, really, was aggressive in name only.
What This Means for Game 2
On the surface, this is great for the Pacers. Getting a Game 1 win in front of a raucous Fieldhouse crowd should provide a confidence boost that this team sorely needed. The feeling of getting such easy buckets time and time again against their rivals has to uplift a once-downtrodden squad.
Still, how will they fare in Game 2 if the comfort they played with throughout the opening game disappears? This team isn’t exactly known for standing tall amidst adversity.
After the game, Spoelstra called what he saw yesterday Miami’s defense at its worst. It’s hard to argue, and they will likely be much more effective in Game 2.
If Miami is able to get back to the Good Aggression it normally employs and Indiana commits a few costly turnovers early, how will the Pacers respond? Will there be a shell-shock feeling that knocks them back on their heels? After having so much success counter-attacking throughout Game 1, will they be able to strike first when they need to?
It’s a good problem to have, no doubt, but it’s an interesting place to be in.
Reactionary dominance is not a common way to win a series, particularly not against a back-to-back champion. It was a great way to earn one victory, and the Pacers must continue to counter attack in spots, but they also need to be ready to become the aggressors.
In Game 2, they need to parry when it makes sense but also be ready to go on the offensive.