Hitting Refresh on HEAT-Pacers

Indiana Pacers
Photo Credit: Ron Hoskins

The Eastern Conference hasn’t been what most expected it to be, but it’s most known quantities remain firmly entrenched in the top two spots. There have been changes made around the fringes of each rotation, but the Indiana Pacers and the Miami HEAT are still the teams you know them to be. One is a defensive juggernaut with an offense that comes and goes, the other employing a lethal attack buoyed by a swarming-yet-inconsistent defense. Big vs. Small. Size vs. Speed. Shooting vs. Rebounding. All the questions that were present during last season’s Eastern Conference Finals remain relevant today.

Whatever happens tonight is just a preview. Nothing can be settled in December when only a twist-of-fate can keep these teams apart in May. But instead of focusing on what parts of tonight’s results you should ignore – two titles and over three years into this HEAT run, we should be past all of that – let’s take the opportunity to look at where a game is won between two teams that know everything about one another. In an injury-plagued season stripped of many of its marquee matchups, we can’t afford to ignore anything.

Here’s what we know. No individual defender affects the HEAT quite like Roy Hibbert. As Hibbert has matured as a paint-defender, his presence has forced a Miami squad setting offensive records to re-evaluate its own approach. Like many teams, the HEAT have schemed around Hibbert, and as such each game hinges on whether or not Hibbert gets into foul trouble. To get Hibbert to pick up those fouls, the HEAT have to put pressure on the paint. To protect the paint, the Pacers play under most pick-and-rolls and rely on length and athleticism to cover the distance between one-foot-in-the-paint and one-hand-contesting on the perimeter.

The HEAT will probably get out-rebounded, at least by standard measurements. They haven’t been rebounding well lately, but it’s also not a team meant to stand toe-to-toe with larger frontlines and match boards. Erik Spoelstra’s team cares little for offensive rebounds, and his entire defensive system is constructed around the premise of speed compensating for size – of chaos and turnovers trumping tradition. If Miami deflects passes and gets George Hill and Paul George retreating on the perimeter, that will translate into opportunities against Indiana’s stonewall.

LeBron James will attack out of the post. Dwyane Wade will find the cutting seams. Chris Bosh will space the floor and try to draw Roy Hibbert away from the rim. Miami’s shooters will have less time than ever to get their shots off, and the team’s revived bench unit will face its stiffest test of the young season. Nobody forces more mid-range jumpers than Indiana, and the HEAT will have to accept an efficiency trade-off and make some from that zone.

As with any battle between a high-powered offense and an elite defense, there will be plenty of variance on that end of the floor for Miami – recall them trading blowouts with the Pacers and San Antonio Spurs in consecutive seven-game series. The key, eventually, is whether the HEAT can win the games when Indiana stifles the paint and the jumpers just don’t fall.

The best way to do that, then, is to make sure a statistically average Pacers offense remains average.

Dynamic isn’t a word you would use to describe Indiana’s attack, but they aren’t as straightforward as most pick-and-roll NBA offenses. Few teams can replicate the dual post-up threats of Hibbert and David West, but Frank Vogel also tries to manufacture shots in ways that don’t bring two defenders to the ball and play into Miami’s traps.

Sometimes that manifests in something as simple as George curling off a screen at the elbow.

Maybe George takes the jumper – he’s been one of the best off-dribble shooters in the league so far – or maybe he rounds the screen into the paint, creating an opening on the perimeter.

Instead of running a pick-and-roll right into a trap, the Pacers will run George off a corner screen into an off-ball pick-and-roll. You can still trap the ball, but now you’re trapping it at the elbow instead of beyond the arc. Now your defense has a split-second to work out the right rotation to cover a wide-open West.

These plays are sort of to Indiana what those Marc Gasol-Zach Randolph high-low sets were to the Memphis Grizzlies last season. They’re more of an ideal than a constant, but it’s a threat you constantly have to be cognizant of. The Spurs moved the ball well enough that they could get Miami over-rotated on defense in a variety of standard situations. Indiana doesn’t snap the ball around as San Antonio does, so they have to try to get Miami out-of-sorts away from the ball. It’s not glamorous, but it’s functional.

The true threat, however, is in those unplanned skirmishes around the rim – the battles that emerge from the seams created by defensive rotations. While Hibbert’s field-goal percentage is brought down by a high number of attempted putbacks, he’s still shooting below 50 percent from the field and making only half his shots at the rim. All those hook shots he takes a few feet further out? He’s shooting just 40.5 percent from that range. In a vacuum, Hibbert hasn’t been the most efficient player.

But all that is irrelevant if Hibbert is getting better position and easier looks against a team that throws smaller bodies at him as Miami does with Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, Rashard Lewis and Chris Andersen. Hibbert made over 70 percent of his shots at the rim against Miami in the Conference Finals last year, and over half of his shots in the paint outside the restricted circle. Essentially, he approached healthy Dwight Howard levels of efficiency.

All that may have been unsustainable given Hibbert’s career norms, but the HEAT helped him reach that level by getting beat away from the ball. The odds are in Miami’s favor if Indiana chases mismatches with straight post-ups no matter what the cost.

What can’t happen is this:

This is how Indiana brings the pain. While the ball is engaged in a different set of triggers, West and Hibbert will use their size to cajole their way into deep position. It’s going to happen sometimes, but the HEAT need everyone helping to make sure that when it does happen, it wasn’t an easy earn. Simple cross-screens and duck-ins can’t be enough to get Hibbert and West five-foot looks. If it is, the Pacers become an above-average offense. But if the HEAT engage in the fight for position, they give their defense a chance to do what it does best.

Take away the easy catches and you make the Pacers work. The longer the Pacers work, the deeper they get into the shot clock. And the deeper a team gets into the shot-clock, the more likely they are to run the pick-and-rolls and isolations that the HEAT, at their best, gobble up.

For all the plays Indiana might run, for all the corner threes the HEAT will try to create and the tinkered-with schemes on either end, the fight away from the ball remains a constant. Defensively, Hibbert is a problem. Right now, he’s the problem in a league. But if he’s going to turn into an elite offensive player whenever he plays the HEAT, that changes the entire nature of this relationship.

So while you enjoy tonight’s refresher course on this season-series, take your eyes off the ball for a bit and see what’s happening in the paint. Chances are, that’s where the game will be decided.