Are Indiana Pacers Biggest Challenge to Miami Heat's Eastern Conference Throne?

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Are Indiana Pacers Biggest Challenge to Miami Heat's Eastern Conference Throne?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

As long as they hold the title of defending NBA champions, the Miami Heat remain the league's team to beat.

But that doesn't mean that the Indiana Pacers can't emerge as the club's biggest threat to make it out of the Eastern Conference.

Despite not getting a single minute of play in 2012-13 from All-Star forward Danny Granger, the Pacers have amassed an impressive 21-14 mark.

Their stifling defense has held opponents to the second-fewest points allowed in the NBA (89.5 per game). And that harassing, physical play just silenced Miami's potent offense (102.2 points per game) to the tune of a season-low 77 points during Indiana's 10-point home victory on January 8.

The veteran-laden Heat may have the edge in experience, but that's perhaps a kinder way of saying that the team's quickly getting old. Indiana, meanwhile, has just one player over 30 years old (David West, 32) and only two above the age of 27 (Granger, 29).

In other words, the Pacers have a strong contingency of players in the prime of their careers, complemented by a developing core of youthful talent. And their lone old soul (the free-agent-to-be West) has quietly crept his way back toward All-Star production (16.7 points and eight rebounds per game).

Of course, the Eastern Conference is bigger than just these two clubs. Thirteen teams bigger to be exact.

So why is it that the Pacers are Miami's threat and not the New York Knicks (23-11), Atlanta Hawks (20-13) or even the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls (19-13)?

Well for starters, that whole Rose-being-absent thing removes Chicago from the discussion. Until this club can showcase a healthy, pre-injury effective Rose, they'll be a great regular season story and not much else.

And as for the Hawks, they're more of a poor man's Heat. They have the athletes to run with the Heat, but not the kind of offensive firepower (97.1 points per game) to engage coach Erik Spoelstra's team in a run-and-gun series. They even have their own collection of perimeter threats (Kyle Korver, DeShawn Stevenson and Lou Williams), but not nearly enough marksmen to outshoot Miami's wealth of long-range shooters (Ray Allen, Mike Miller, LeBron James and Shane Battier).

So that leaves just the Pacers and Knicks (sorry Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics fans).

The Knicks, much like the Hawks, have a lot of similarities with the Heat. Both teams are led by dominant wings turned post threats (Carmelo Anthony and James). And no matter how well Anthony has played to date, even he'd struggle picking himself over the greatest player on the planet.

The two teams also utilize the three-point line for a significant chunk of their offensive output. New York has a better chance of outshooting Miami than Atlanta would, but it would take one heck of a perimeter performance for that to be the deciding factor in a seven-game playoff series.

Indiana, on the other hand, brings a completely different scheme to the table. They slow the tempo (they're 27th in terms of pace, according to basketball-reference.com), opting to outmuscle rather than outrun the opposition.

And they attack the glass as well as any team in the league (plus-4.4 rebounding differential, best among their conference peers).

Rebounding is certainly not the end-all, be-all of NBA statistics, but advantages of plus-19 on the glass and plus-15 on the offensive boards (both feats accomplished during the Pacers' victory over the Heat) are simply too great for other teams to compensate for, particularly when the rebounding effort carries over to the team's second unit.

What's worse for Miami is that their rebounding performance in that game was hardly a fluke. The undersized, position-less system put forth by Spoelstra has left the club vulnerable on the glass, where they've been out-rebounded by a margin of greater than 2.8 per game. And the Knicks have been just as ineffective on the glass, losing the rebounding battle by an average of 2.9 per game.

In a slower, half-court setting, post isolations come to the forefront in a far greater number than most numbers-crunchers would like to believe. And Indiana has just the kind of size to bother Miami on the defensive end, then score over the top of them offensively.

 

 

In West, Granger and Roy Hibbert, Indiana has a plethora of post scorers capable of creating in those situations. The most effective post scorers for Miami and New York to date, meanwhile, are still adjusting to life in the paint (Anthony and James).

If psychologists are right and past behaviors are truly the best predictor for future behaviors, then Miami should again escape the league's lesser conference.

But don't be surprised when its the Pacers (and not the Knicks, Hawks, Bulls or Celtics) who present the biggest road block to Miami's third-consecutive NBA Finals.

*All statistics used in this article are accurate as of 1/8/2013.

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