The Pacers and Heat have split 14 games the past two seasons, including the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, so when the teams renew acquaintances in the rematch Sunday in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, it really won’t be about strategy and tactics.
More like a cage match.
“We know them, they know us,” said David West. “It’s going to come down to the details. We have to match their intensity. Obviously they’re the defending champs, we’ve sort of been on a collision-course all year. We took different routes to get where we are, but we’re here. For us, we’ve got to come out, establish who we are, establish our style of play, take care of the basketball, continue to improve from game to game.
“This is not going to be an easy thing. What we’re trying to do and the journey that we’ve been on, it’s not going to be easy and it’s not scripted so you can’t say, ‘This series is going to go one way. This series is going to go another way.’ You just have to keep preparing every single day and take the moments as they come.”
For the Pacers, this is about winning one more game. They took two from the Heat in the second round in 2012, three in the conference finals last year.
What must they do in order to get that one little, gigantic win?
>> MAKE THE BENCH RELEVANT
It’s interesting, after three years of rebuilding the bench, it’s actually worse than it was when these two teams met in the second round in 2012. Then, the group with Darren Collison, Leandro Barbosa and Tyler Hansbrough outscored Miami’s bench 147-124.
D.J. Augustin and Gerald Green came along in 2013, and the bench was outscored by 76 by the Heat.
Now, the Pacers have Luis Scola, Evan Turner, C.J. Watson and Ian Mahinmi. On paper, it should be an effective, difference-making bench. On the court, it has been anything but, producing just 20.5 points per game thus far in the postseason.
In order for the Pacers to have any chance in this series, the reserves must have a tangible positive impact on a consistent basis because the starters simply cannot do it on their own.
>> TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE ADVANTAGE
As much as the Pacers tried to downplay their pursuit in the latter stages of the regular season, homecourt advantage was won, and should be fully exploited.
For whatever reasons, the Pacers lost Games 1 and 5 at home in each of the first two rounds, potential death blows, but they survived by winning five of six on the road. They’ve already won more road games in a single postseason then any other team in franchise history, which is nice.
They have six months invested in homecourt advantage. Now’s the time to cash in, and stop giving it away.
>> THINK INSIDE THE BOX
In many ways, this series will be a war over Roy Hibbert. Miami will do everything in its power to draw him away from the basket defensively, while the Pacers must do everything in their power to keep him on the box offensively. No one is expecting, or requiring, Hibbert approximate the dominance he showed against Miami a year ago but he must be a factor on offense and a force on defense.
Erik Spoelstra’s biggest tactical decision will be his decision to use either a traditional big lineup with Udonis Haslem or Chris Andersen against Hibbert, or whether to go small with Shane Battier at power forward, which would leave Hibbert to chase Chris Bosh on the perimeter (see: Paul Millsap). Going big might keep Hibbert in his comfort zone. Going small might give David West a more favorable matchup.
>> PACK IT IN, BUT NOT TOO TIGHTLY
Keeping LeBron James and Dwyane Wade out of the lane as much as possible is always easier said than done, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary.
As you can see from the shot chart on the right, nearly half of James’ attempts during the regular season came in the restricted area (within eight feet of the basket), where he hit 75 percent. Beyond that sweet spot, his accuracy dropped to 39 percent.
If possible, keep him out of the restricted area and on the right side of the floor. On perimeter shots, James shot 44 percent from the left side, 32 percent from the right; from 3-point range the numbers were 41 percent left and 28 percent right.
It’s similar with Wade, who shot 60 percent in the restricted area, 40 percent beyond.
The challenge is to keep bodies between them and the basket while not leaving too many openings on the perimeter. The Heat are shooting 39 percent from the 3-point line in the playoffs – and Ray Allen hasn’t been particularly hot, hitting just 33 percent.
>> PLAY WITH AGGRESSIVE PATIENCE
Offensively, the Pacers must contain the tempo without playing slow.
This means avoiding the tendency (George Hill, this means you) to walk the ball upcourt, which both allows the defense to get set while draining precious time from the shot clock, limiting the ability to fully and cleanly execute the play call.
It also offers the defense the opportunity to extend and either pressure or trap the ball and create the live-ball turnovers that are fuel to Miami. The Pacers averaged 17 turnovers in last year’s conference finals; cut the number by two or three a game, and a difference can be made.
>> KEEP THE WILD CARD ON THE TABLE
Lance Stephenson, this means you.
He was excellent against Atlanta but disappeared for most of the Washington series before finally surfacing with 17 points in Game 6. Simply put, the Pacers cannot afford inconsistency of emotion, maturity or effort from Stephenson, because his matchup with Wade just might be the tipping point for this series.
No more choke signs, no more taunting of the opponents’ coaches or bench, and leave the officials alone. Just play.
This is the most important series of Stephenson’s career, and it is time to show he can put aside childish things and accept the responsibilities that come with his talent.
>> AND THE VERDICT?
When I picked the Pacers in seven over the Hawks in the first round, I was ripped for being too negative.
When I picked the Pacers in six over the Wizards in the second round, I was ripped for being too positive.
Well, I’m picking the Pacers in seven this time for no particular reason other than this:
Indiana is a little better than last year, and Miami isn’t quite as good.