With defensive tenacity and a punishing, menacing front line, the Indiana Pacers have reached the Eastern Conference finals. But if vanquishing the New York Knicks in six games seemed like a tall task, their path to the NBA Finals seems preposterously gargantuan in comparison.
To defeat LeBron James in his prime and the Miami Heat in a best-of-seven series is akin to defeating a Michael Jordan-led Bulls team in his prime. James is the best player in the world. He has several “spacers” who can knock down open looks if he passes out of the double-team. And Miami still has two world-class talents in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. So any team is going to have trouble with the Heat.
But let’s face it: Miami’s path to the NBA’s final four hasn’t been all that difficult. After a hasty romp over the Milwaukee Bucks, they easily dispatched a Chicago Bulls team without its two best players. The Heat will likely face its first true postseason challenge in Indiana, where the Pacers possess key advantages over Miami that no other Eastern Conference team has.
Roy Hibbert and David West are monsters inside, acting as roadblocks and deterrents to any drivers (ask Carmelo Anthony). Paul George would have gotten this writer’s vote for Defensive Player of the Year. So this series could quite possibly be way too close for Miami’s comfort.
Here are five key factors going into Wednesday night’s series opener:
1. The LeBron Factor: To state the brutally obvious, this series hinges on how well the best player on the planet performs. Not to be an alarmist or anything, but James’ postseason stats are noticeably worse than they were during the regular season. This could be due to the low degree of difficulty Miami has faced in the playoffs, or some other excuse I could make up. But the historically prolific stats weren’t there during James’ first nine playoff games this season.
|LeBron||Min||FG %||3 FG%||Points||Rebounds||Assists|
LeBron’s shots have gone slightly down, but his shooting percentages are down overall and way down from the 3-point arc. Indiana has one of the best defenses in the NBA, so a continued dip in James’ shooting could have a larger impact than it did during the first two rounds.
|LeBron James||Min||FG %||3 FG%||Points||Rebounds||Assists|
|Season vs IND||40.3||51.1||50||21||7.3||4.7|
2. The interior muscle factor: Roy Hibbert and David West are two bad, bad men who take opponents out of their comfort zones inside. Hibbert has averaged 9.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in the playoffs while shooting 47.3 percent from the field (compared to 44.8 percent during the regular season), improving on both ends of the field after he was heavily criticized for his offense.
But it’s on the defensive end where these two really make the largest impact. Indiana has allowed opponents to shoot 41.6 percent from the field during the playoffs (third to only Boston, who couldn’t beat the Knicks, and Miami, whose competition wasn’t overly great) and allow 89.4 points per game on 1.12 points per shot (dead even with the Heat in the latter department).
Where the Pacers really stand out is in the rebounding department. Indiana leads all playoff teams in total rebounds, defensive rebounds, offensive rebounds and a plus-9.8 per game edge. That’s an enormous advantage on the glass that you should definitely watch out for.
3. The Paul George Factor: Carmelo Anthony shot just 43.3 percent during the conference semifinals against the Pacers, well below his 46.9 percent season average, and scored 1.14 points per shot against Indiana compared with 1.35 during the regular season. A lot of that had to do with the disruptive defense from George, who had the most defensive win shares during the regular season and should have won the Defensive Player of the Year award. He has the ability to play tough perimeter defense against James as Indiana tries to somehow curtail his production.
If his defensive abilities weren’t enough, George has led Indiana in scoring during the playoffs at 19.1 points to go with five assists. As influential as Hibbert is for Indiana, George will be more important on both sides of the floor if the Pacers have any shot.
4. The Point Guard Factor: George Hill played in Indiana’s Game 6 win over the Knicks, returning from a concussion but shooting just 2-for-10. If he can come back at full strength, that could be another area where the Pacers have an overall leg up on the Heat. Hill is an upgrade over D.J. Augustin, who somehow did not record a single assist in Games 4 and 5 despite logging 60 total minutes.
On the Miami side, the emerging storyline at point guard is the rise of Norris Cole, who is clearly outperforming Mario Chalmers on the offensive end. Cole is shooting over 60 percent from the field overall and 68.8 percent from the arc, and is now playing over 22 minutes per game in the playoffs to Chalmers’ 26. It will be interesting to see how Erik Spoelstra divvies up his minutes during the series.
5. The Bench Factor: Miami’s bench is really good. Indiana’s? Not so much. While Miami’s reserves outscored Chicago’s in all five games in the second round (though the Bulls were badly depleted by injury and illness), Indiana’s bench scored fewer points than New York in each of their six contests. The Pacers were trounced 31-8 in Game 6 and 35-10 in Game 5.
Lance Stephenson’s ascent to the starting lineup may have something to do with that, but when you compare the likes of Augustin, Ian Mahinmi, Sam Young and Tyler Hansbrough with the likes of Cole, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Chris Andersen (and others), you could tell that bench production could (and probably will) be a pretty large factor in this series.
SHERIDAN: Heat in 7.
HUBBARD: Heat in 7.
HEISLER: Heat in 6.
BERNUCCA: Heat in 6.
HAMILTON: Heat in 6.
MAY: Heat in 6.
PERKINS: Heat in 5.
SCHAYES: Heat in 6.
ANDY KAMENETZKY: Heat in 7.
BRIAN KAMENETZKY: Heat in 6.
ZAGORIA: Heat in 6.
PARK: Heat in 6.