Give And Go: Burning questions for Heat, Pacers entering Game 5 of Eastern finals
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: Digging into five key questions before the Heat and Pacers, tied at two games apiece, take the court for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals in Miami on Thursday night.
1. What’s Miami’s fear factor after losing Game 4, on a scale of one (no fear) to 10 (utter panic)?
Ben Golliver: I’ll go with just a four, but answering this question is brutal given the sky-high expectations that rightly surrounded a Heat team that entered the Eastern Conference finals on a 46-3 tear. The first four games have been way more difficult than expected for Miami. That’s got to spike the Heat’s anxiety at least somewhat, right?
Every time I start leaning toward the possibility of a Pacers upset, though, flashbacks from last year’s Eastern Conference finals come roaring back. In a worse position against a more experienced team than the Pacers, the Heat overcame a 3-2 deficit to the Celtics thanks to the best performance of LeBron James’ life in Game 6 and a dominant fourth-quarter effort from the Heat’s Big three in Game 7. Boston went home stunned and bummed.
Outside of stretches in Game 3, the Heat haven’t come close to approximating that type of basketball against the Pacers. What’s more, some of Miami’s ugliest stretches in Game 4 appeared to result from its absent-mindedness, a flaw that a fully engaged Indiana team in win-or-die mode took full advantage of. I expect that mental gap between the two teams to close considerably, starting in Game 5. If that doesn’t happen, crank the panic meter up to an eight or nine.
Rob Mahoney: I’ll say three, simply because the Heat are too good and too level-headed to fall into a panic just yet. As Ben noted, we have yet to see Miami manage any kind of sustained dominance in this series, though for reasons that seem more to do with its alternatingly lacking (weird lapses in effort) and overly ambitious (helping too much against penetration, attempting needlessly difficult shots) execution. The Pacers will turn every possession into a battle, but no one should think that a few losses against a quality opponent would have the Heat sweating.
2. Who or what has been the most pleasant surprise of the series?
Mahoney: Indiana’s offense in general has exceeded even the wildest expectations. As has been noted by many, the Pacers have scored at a blistering pace of 111.3 points per 100 possessions in the series — a mark that would have led the league in the regular season and is nearly 10 points higher than Indiana’s season average. For this to come against a defense as disruptive as Miami’s is a shock, to say the least, and representative of very real growth in Indiana’s strategy and execution.
The basic advantages that the Pacers hold in this series are essentially the same as they were a year ago. Roy Hibbert is still a very large man. David West is still skilled and strong. Paul George has improved and Lance Stephenson’s productive streaks are somewhat new, I’d suppose, but otherwise Indiana makes for a familiar opponent. And coach Frank Vogel has done a magnificent job of preparing his team to attack the Heat at points of weakness. Side-to-side ball movement can break down Miami’s frenetic rotations, and Indiana has used a shifting point of entry to establish Hibbert down low with fantastic position. The Pacers have also taken away the Heat’s ability to front with smart play design and team-wide execution, and bailed out swarmed ball handlers with West and Hibbert offering high, available targets for bailout passes. It’s beautiful execution from a group that played mediocre offense for much of the year, a testament to how much good, concerted preparation can do for a team with so many skilled players.
Golliver: This might be a bit reactionary in the wake of a strong Game 4 performance, but I’ll go with Stephenson. He stripped away a lot of the surprise factor when he exploded for 25 points and 10 rebounds in a close-out Game 6 win over the Knicks, but he’s found a way to be a menace on both ends, and on the glass, even as his shot wasn’t falling earlier in the series. It’s safe to say he’s getting under the skin of Heat players at every turn. His ability to push the tempo early in Game 4 was huge and his body control on some of his finishes is truly next level. Surely finding Stephenson in transition and doing whatever it takes to prevent his forays to the rim will be a primary point of emphasis for the Heat heading into Game 5. Even though he’s usually a fifth scoring option, he’s proved multiple times in the 2013 playoffs that he can play a major role in delivering a victory if allowed to run amok.
3. Who or what has been the biggest disappointment of the series?
Golliver: The D in D-Wade definitely stands for disappointment in this series. Above, I mentioned Miami’s absent-mindedness in Game 4 and nobody was guiltier than Dwyane Wade, who has seemed to sabotage his own effectiveness in every other game in this series. Nothing went right in his 5-for-15 performance on Tuesday; he couldn’t hit chippies in transition, he was called for a questionable late-game traveling violation, he took wild, out-of-control shots and he repeatedly lost track of his man while playing defense. He looked locked out, as opposed to locked in. He looked like someone staring at a sunny windshield as opposed to someone completely in and of the moment.
This series is a chess match and no one involved — not even James — has been totally consistent from game to game. Wade just needs to do more than the 14.3 points, 5.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds he’s averaging in the playoffs. We know he’s capable of better (he put up 22.8/4.3/5.2 last year), he knows he’s capable of better and Miami’s margin of error is quite tight when he’s off.
Mahoney: The Pacers were fully expected to dominate the glass in this series, but the Heat have been far too compliant in surrendering that advantage. Hibbert and West are bound to get some boards simply by standing near the hoop and raising their arms. But Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen have done a very poor job of boxing out, even on the occasions in which they have good rebounding position. Arms-only box-outs aren’t going to work against this team, and yet two of Miami’s most frequent frontcourt contributors have largely failed to commit to a more fundamentally sound box-out technique. It’s hard to move West, and even harder to move Hibbert. But the attempt alone can distract or unseat them from prime rebounding real estate, making it far more difficult for the Pacers to create and convert second-chance opportunities.
4. What’s one adjustment you expect to see in Game 5?
Mahoney: In light of the above, I’d expect Miami to be more conservative in responding to dribble penetration. As HoopSpeak’s Beckley Mason noted in his riff on Hibbert’s offensive rebounding, overreacting to a ball handler in the paint has too often left Hibbert unattended, making it far too easy for him to collect a rebound and drop the ball back in the hoop. Miami does such a good job of swarming the interior on the whole that at times the presence of another defender is overkill. It’s in those cases that 18 seconds or so of quality team defense is undone by swarming a single opponent and ceding the offensive glass, a problem that Miami coach Erik Spoelstra will no doubt aim to address.
Functioning as a help defender is riddled with complications of timing and the balancing of potential threats, and one can hardly disparage the Heat big men for aiming to stop the ball as they’ve done all season. Indiana is just a different beast because of its ability to manufacture second-chance points and its greater struggles to score on first attempt, increasing the importance for Miami to win the possession battle and bring help from elsewhere on the floor.
Golliver: Give poor Birdman some help. Spoelstra understands that his team will take a certain amount of pummeling on the glass, but Indiana’s 49-30 rebounding advantage in Game 4 can’t fly. As James said, that kind of disparity “can’t happen.” As frustrating as all those extra rebounds, extended possessions and second-chance points are for Miami, they’re just half the story of Indiana’s interior butt-kicking in Game 4. The other half? Hibbert torching Andersen in their one-on-one matchup at seemingly every turn.
Hibbert finished with 23 points (on 10-for-16 shooting) and added 12 rebounds after putting up 29-and-10 in the Pacers’ Game 2 victory. Meanwhile, Andersen went scoreless and was a minus-11 in 19 minutes. Hibbert has done more than enough to command extra, swarming respect from Miami’s defense, and he has a deep enough inventory of moves and a high enough basketball intelligence to continue to score on Andersen in isolation if given the opportunity. It’s time for the Heat to encourage the Pacers’ shooters to beat them. After all, Indiana is shooting just 31.9 percent from three-point range during the postseason.
5. Has anything happened in in the first four games that has made you second-guess your series prediction?
Golliver: I picked Heat in six and I’ll continue to ride with that. But … Indiana’s 11-0 start to Game 4 was striking, especially in contrast to Memphis, which came out frustratingly flat against San Antonio in its Game 4 loss on Monday. Here was a proud team, amped up at home, playing intense defense, getting out in transition and moving the ball to find open shooters. What an impressive response after a dismal Game 3. Now that’s how a team with its season on the line should look coming out of the gate. That opening push — with Hibbert setting the tone and Stephenson flying around everywhere — definitely made my eyes bug out, and it serves as a taste of the effort level we can expect to see in Game 6, no matter what happens on Thursday night.
Mahoney: Indiana has been truly awesome. An offense that was difficult to watch at times in the regular season has proved to be clever and flexible. Defensively, the Pacers have done more than enough to make James, Wade and the Heat’s three-point shooters think twice on every attempt. The Pacers’ terrific play has made this series fair game through four, and for that they deserve a ton of credit.
But I, too, picked Heat in six, and I’m not inclined to abandon that guess just yet. We’ve just seen far too little of Miami’s vaunted extra gear, and on those occasions when the Heat have turned up their energy and honed their execution, they’ve been the better team by far. I’d expect to see a bit more of that world-crushing Heat team over the next few games.