Pacers-Heat: Better than advertised
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com
Big or small?
That's the defining question as Miami and Indiana get ready to face off in the second round, in a series that could prove much more compelling than advertised. Miami won the regular-season series 3-1, but the Pacers got better each time -- losing by 35, losing by 15, losing by 2 in overtime on a buzzer-beater by Dwyane Wade and finally winning by 15.
That's par for Indy's season, actually. The Pacers' defense has been rock solid from the get-go, but the offense picked up dramatically after the All-Star break. Indy's offensive efficiency of 107.5 over its final 20 games dwarfed its 99.4 mark in its first 30 (these numbers from NBA.com's advanced stats tool); Miami, meanwhile, went in the exact opposite direction, even before playing the JV during the final week.
Indiana doesn't have the star power of Miami -- its one All-Star, Roy Hibbert, was a "team success" pick who averaged just 12.8 points per game. Instead the Pacers' strength lies in numbers; all five starters had a PER above the league average and all five must be guarded.
Additionally, Indiana was one of the league's most careful teams managing minutes and keeping players fresh. The Pacers got no attention for this, in contrast to San Antonio, but Danny Granger (33.3) was the only Pacer to play more than 30 minutes per game.
But the key to the series isn't Granger. It's Hibbert because Miami can't match up with the Pacers' 7-foot-2 post threat in the middle. Chris Bosh is a slender 6-11, Udonis Haslem is 6-8 on a good day and Miami's other alleged centers all are at least four inches shorter than Hibbert. The only Miami player with the size to match him is Eddy Curry, who has a better chance of bailing out the Greek economy than he does of playing meaningful minutes in this series.
Hibbert will play over the top of everyone else on Miami, and on defense he can be a huge factor, as well -- just ask the Orlando Magic, sent home by Indiana after five games. Miami has played with at least one non-threatening big man on the court for most of the season, and if they do that against the Pacers it will allow Hibbert to clog the middle and contest drives by Wade and LeBron James. He's good at it, too, rejecting better than a shot every 15 minutes.
To see how much of a factor Hibbert might be, check out this stat: When LeBron James was on the court against Hibbert in the four regular-season games, Miami was plus-17 in 128 minutes -- not good for the Pacers, obviously, but manageable.
When LeBron played and Hibbert didn't? The Heat were plus-30 in 31 minutes. Yikes.
And Miami has a chance to force a difficult choice for Indiana about how much to play Hibbert -- he is not terribly mobile and is a fish out of water on the perimeter, and that's the first place the big versus small question comes up.
Miami can play Chris Bosh at the 5 and LeBron James at the 4, with Mike Miller, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers on the perimeter -- in fact, one wonders if the Heat will start the game this way. They'd obviously surrender some points having Bosh guard Hibbert (although they could also try James in that role), but Hibbert can't handle Bosh on the perimeter and would quickly pick up fouls. Additionally, David West doesn't have a great hiding spot against this lineup, either; he'd probably end up chasing Miller on the perimeter.
Indy has two potential answers for this, both of which are quite foreign to how it played in the regular season. The first is playing a zone. While you would think the Pacers would do this a lot with Hibbert in the middle and their length on the wings, they were slightly below average in their use of zones, according to SynergySports. Another surprise: They weren't particularly good at it, ranking just 17th in opponent points per play.
The other option is to take Hibbert off the floor and go small themselves. Indiana could do this credibly by inserting Leandro Barbosa or Darren Collison to play with George Hill in the backcourt, sliding Paul George and Danny Granger up one place, and playing David West at center. But it would remove a key threat and force West into a defensive role in which he'd be overmatched.
That explains why the Pacers basically never played this way -- their bigs averaged 95.8 minutes per game in the regular season, meaning there was only about 70 seconds per game where Indy was playing small. (The Pacers averaged 96.9 available frontcourt minutes per game this season rather than 96.0 because of overtimes.) And they didn't against the Heat, either; based on box score data, they played a grand total of one minute of smallball in the four games.
So it may be that it's a small Miami lineup trying to take it to a big Indiana lineup, and that neither team gives in.
Keep in mind, the big versus small debate isn't just about the starters. One of the intriguing possibilities for the Pacers in this series is that they can play small off the bench and relegate Louis Amundson to a bit player.
As I've written before, Indy's bench was a secret liability this season -- Amundson, Tyler Hansbrough and Dahntay Jones all had negative plus-minus ratings and Barbosa was barely positive. That tendency carried over to the first-round series against Orlando; Amundson was the only player with a negative rating, while the five starters had the five best marks.
But Pacers coach Frank Vogel did begin playing small, in short increments, against the Magic. Amundson played only 37 minutes over the five games. Instead Indiana played four perimeter players with David West at center for 13 minutes, and with Hansbrough for two. That may not seem like much, but it's a veritable outbreak compared to the regular season.
There is opportunity for the Pacers to do the same in this series, further restricting their reliance on a Hansbrough-Amundson duo that was outscored in the regular season. That latter combo simply destroys Indiana's offense -- opponents don't guard Amundson, and Hansbrough shoots every time regardless of whether he's open (I have a fun stat for this that I'll show next week; suffice it to say Hansbrough is elite in this category).
However, Miami can force the matchup action in another way: by going big in the backcourt. Indiana plays two small guards, Collison and Barbosa, and usually plays them together with the second unit.
If Miami goes to one of its jumbo lineups with LeBron or Wade at the point, it may force the Pacers to take at least one of those players off the court. Additionally, it would be virtually impossible for Indy to go small against that group unless it resurrects Dahntay Jones, who had a rough regular season but may be a factor in this series because of his defensive ability on the wings. So with all that said, why do I think Indiana will make this series close? Basically, because the opportunity is here for the Pacers to cut their rotation further and ride their best players dramatically more than in the regular season.
And if they ride the starters, this is going to be a heck of a series. News flash: Indiana's starting lineup was just as good as Miami's this season. I don't think people understand how little Indy's starting lineup played or the implications for this series if that group is playing more standard playoff minutes, but let me walk you through them.
Both teams made switches to their regular starting quintet late in the year, so let's combine: Miami's starting five was plus-12.4 points per 48 minutes with Haslem in the middle and plus-9.7 with Joel Anthony; the Pacers were plus-15.1 with Hill at the point and plus-9.1 with Collison.
Or look at it this way, using quartets: Chalmers-Wade-James-Bosh was plus-11.8 for Miami; George-Granger-West-Hibbert was plus-10.0 for the Pacers, according to NBA.com.
Conclusion: Indy can hang with these guys, folks. As with Miami, it's the Pacers' bench lineups that have hurt them, and we'll see dramatically less of those in this series.
I still like Miami to win: The Heat have home-court advantage, a major experience edge and a couple of lineup options that may be difficult for Indy to answer. That's why I took the Heat in 7.
Nonetheless, Indy has the length on the wings to match up with Miami, the firepower in the starting lineup to keep pace and a big man that the Heat can't handle one-on-one.
If it's as close as I expect, keep monitoring the big versus small -- in both the frontcourt and the backcourt. The team that takes better advantage of these potential disparities is likely to be the winner.