Three things to watch as Heat and Pacers pick up where they left off
Wednesday night marks the second meeting between the Pacers and Heat in as many weeks, a treat for NBA fans in a sprawling regular season. To mark the occasion, The Point Forward offers three things to watch for – both as criteria for a victory Wednesday and as more general trends in the matchup at large.
• The grind of guarding the best opponent on the floor. There aren’t many talking points juicier than two of the best in the league defending one another, but two factors could get in the way of that on Wednesday night: 1) LeBron James could be in lesser form (or miss the game entirely) with an ankle sprain, and 2) the matchup between James and Paul George is typically decided by the least sexy factor possible: attrition.
Guarding a high-caliber opponent takes its toll. Assuming James is in the lineup, it bears watching how both manage their effort and intensity throughout the game.
Only on rare occasions does James defend an elite wing on a full-time basis; there are enough workarounds in Miami’s rotation that James is typically given a break. But with George, the Heat clearly prefer to use their most athletic defender. That could well change if James’ ankle sprain is considered too painful or limiting, but until shown otherwise, it seems safe to assume that LeBron will spend ample time covering George.
James did well in handling that defensive assignment when these two teams met last week – George was limited to 4-of-11 shooting with six turnovers in nearly 42 minutes of action – though his energy level on offense seemed to suffer for it. Miami asks so much of James, but he really has to be all things — elite defender, high-usage playmaker, frequent shooter, impact rebounder — to stave off this Indiana team consistently.
George doesn’t face quite the same burden, though he does have the pleasure of checking James for most every minute he’s on the floor — a full night’s work and then some. On top of that, he’ll need to do a better job of working through and around traps, which will assuredly come early and often. Miami is fundamentally a high-pressure team on defense, but with George, in particular, they make an incredible effort to get the ball out of his hands.
George has to give it up with the understanding that the scoring opportunities will come back to him — that it’s only a matter of time before the Heat dial up the pressure elsewhere on the floor, leaving opportunity for the ball to swing his way. The temptation to do too much is strong for a creative wing like George, but overextension plays into Miami’s hands and further drains him.
• The Pacers’ turnover battle, and both teams’ rate of conversion on live-ball turnovers. Fast break points are precious in games like these, as neither half-court defense allows easy scores. That makes the turnover battle all the more important. A steal may provide for the only clean looks around the rim that the Heat get all night, and transition may be the only time where the Pacers can look to score without facing schemed pressure on the ball.
In their last regular season meeting, the turnover margin tilted decidedly in Miami’s favor. George had his six giveaways, many incurred by making ambitious plays. David West, though, led the team with seven, and Luis Scola committed four turnovers in just 16 minutes. In total Indiana committed a turnover on nearly a quarter of their possessions, which against Miami typically results in a sure loss. Yet this was one of the exceedingly few occasions in which the Heat failed to fully capitalize on an opponent’s generosity, in part because the Pacers did a fine job of retreating to contest shots in transitions. It’s unlikely that Indiana will be able to contain Miami’s post-turnover transition work with such consistent success, though the management of turnovers in a general sense should go a long way in deciding this matchup over their next several meetings.
• The situational complexity of Miami’s lineup decisions. In tackling the Pacers, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra has some difficult choices to make in accounting for his team’s lack of frontline size. By and large, he’s opted to run small as a stylistic counter; the utilization of Shane Battier as a functional power forward allows Miami to stretch the floor (in theory), while at the least retaining enough scrap and smarts at the position to bother the likes of David West.
The only problem: On top of the challenges Battier faces in wrestling the bigger, stronger West on possession after possession, the 35-year-old forward has also struggled mightily to score from beyond the arc as a spot-up shooter. Going back to the 2012-13 season and postseason, Battier has gone 7-for-34 (20.6%) from three-point range in his last 11 games against the Pacers — a brutal mark that has handicapped some of Miami’s better lineups. He was almost unplayable in the first meeting between the two teams this season, to the point where even Rashard Lewis — who scored just a single basket — seemed a preferable alternative. If Battier can’t make good on his scoring opportunities, Miami won’t likely do better than a dogfight. Where, though, can Spoelstra find lineup relief, other than by overextending James even further?