The Miami Heat have earned the right of not only being the title favorite, but also a series default; each and every one of their opponents is faced with a burden of proof, and the Indiana Pacers—who will face off in a series with the Heat shortly—are no different.
We know why Miami will likely win its second-round series: The overall talent, offensive potential and defensive frenzy of this season's Heat theoretically give them an advantage against any opponent. But when it comes to making a case for how Indiana might go about orchestrating an upset, the case requires far more specific—and compelling—evidence.
Thus, here are the areas of this series worthy of particular attention, and the relatively unconvincing case that they provide for a potential Pacers upset:
*On paper, the Miami Heat and the Dwight Howard-less Magic—whom the Pacers just ousted from the playoffs—may seem similarly situated in terms of interior defenders. Orlando largely relied on the undersized Glen Davis to defend Roy Hibbert inside, in the same way that Miami may very well lean on Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem to defend its much larger opponent. As a secondary defender, the Magic had Ryan Anderson, a relatively wiry big who could easily be compared to Chris Bosh in form, if nothing else.
There are solid defenders in both groupings, but none that would immediately seem to provide a suitable counter for Hibbert, who has evolved into one of the game's most consistent low-block threats. Center is often said to be Miami's position of greatest weakness, and with a 7'2'' giant drop-stepping and baby hooking as is his wont, one can see how—on the most superficial level—the Heat might be faced with a considerable matchup problem.
Based on Hibbert's skill and technique, I subscribe to that same notion. But there's one tiny complicating factor: In his four games against the Heat thus far this season, Hibbert averaged just 10.5 points on 42-percent shooting from the field. He averaged more turnovers per game (2.0) than assists (1.3), and he registered a half-board under his season average in rebounds. That's not exactly dominant, and certainly not on the level that the size mismatch at the 5 would lead us to believe, nor to the level that would give Indiana the momentum it would need to really pose a significant threat.
It's easy to go position-by-position and analyze supposed advantages and disadvantages, but defending Hibbert will no more be Haslem's or Anthony's or Bosh's job than defending LeBron James will be Danny Granger's; the Pacers and the Heat both employ high-functioning defenses, and to oversimplify the dynamics of their operations to such a degree misunderstands the nature of their operations.
The Heat will almost assuredly look to crowd Hibbert, particularly on his deep catches. Such is the nature of their more general defensive philosophy; Miami has grown to be a bit more conservative in terms of its defensive pressure over the course of the season, but the Heat still look to protect the paint first and foremost, and look to accomplish that goal in swarm form.
That may not bode well for Hibbert, but it may yet bear fruit for the Pacers, provided they're patient enough to move the ball to the open man. As Zach Lowe outlined earlier this season at The Point Forward, Miami is particularly vulnerable to teams that are able to create and make three-point looks at a high rate. The Pacers—by going inside out, and finding Danny Granger, Paul George, George Hill and Leandro Barbosa on the perimeter—could be just such a team.
It's a highly conditional notion and one that Miami could easily adapt to address, but in theory, Hibbert really could command extra defenders and find the Pacers' shooters and slashers for easy buckets. I just put too much credit in Erik Spoelstra's coaching acumen—and in Miami's rotational speed—to think that his team would be so easily halted.
Footnote I: Plus, many of Miami's problems can be fixed merely by going "small" and leaving Anthony and Haslem off the floor as much as possible. Forcing Hibbert to defend Bosh would eliminate much of the potency of his shot blocking, while Bosh is actually surprisingly capable in defending opponents on the block. Supposing that Bosh does as much early work as he can in terms of denying Hibbert optimal post position, he should be able to hold his ground.
Footnote II: It's also worth noting that—as potentially valuable as Hibbert is—Indiana may be able to achieve similar ends by posting up David West, getting the defense to converge on Tyler Hansbrough or even sending Granger to the block against smaller defenders. I'm not all that confident in Hansbrough's willingness to make a pass, much less one out of traffic, but the possibility is on the board for him and the rest of Indiana's post-up players.
* In the four regular season games between the Heat and Pacers this season, Granger averaged 13.3 points (on 34-percent shooting) and 2.3 turnovers in just 30 minutes a contest. I'll say—with some mild trepidation, given the ferocity of Miami's defense—that Granger likely won't play any worse than that over the course of this series. That may not seem like much consolation, but the Pacers were able to top the Heat by 15 points in their most recent outing and come within a bucket in their previous affair—both with Granger in his most minimal and inefficient form.
* The Heat do have a tendency to over-isolate at times, particularly when faced with strong defensive pressure up front. That's an area where the Pacers have the potential to excel. Between George, Granger and Hill, Indiana has a trio of rangy athletes to dedicate to the coverage of James and Dwyane Wade (feel free to add in Dahntay Jones, if you're feeling generous). They don't have to shut down either star, but merely nudge them into what their isolation tendencies are already begging them to do.
There are a number of reasonable explanations as to why players seek to create in one-on-one situations, but James and Wade—despite the fact that each pretty much has the best teammate in the NBA—too easily slip into that zone of isolated comfort. They've largely managed to fight off the temptation of iso basketball in the postseason thus far, but it seems likely that one of the pair (if not both) will eventually drift into that destructive style once again. From there, the Heat offense is inherently less efficient, and thus the collective work of the Pacers' defense becomes significantly easier.
(This idea seems particularly relevant in terms of half-court turnovers. Indiana ranked just outside the top 10 in opponent turnover percentage this season, while Miami ranked 24th in turnover rate. There's real potential for the Pacers to push the Heat offense over the edge by pressuring passing lanes and the like, although considering each team's first-round opponent, it's difficult for us to have a completely accurate snapshot of Indy's and Miami's turnover-based play at this exact moment.)
So long as the Heat continue to run their offense and work cooperatively, they shouldn't have much of a problem—even with a defense as formidable as Indiana's. But if the Pacers' perimeter defenders are able to cut off an option or two with any consistency, it could push James or Wade to take matters into their own hands, giving Indiana the slightest window to capitalize on a particular stretch or a particular game.
Ultimately, even I remain unconvinced. This particular burden of proof is not one the Pacers seem poised to meet, making the Heat no less the favorite to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals than they were the day the postseason—or even the regular season—started. It's been fun, Indy, but most every team eventually seems itself outclassed. This is that time, and there's no shame in falling to the best team in basketball.
Miami in six.