As the Miami Heat ride a season-best 15-game win streak, the defending champs appear poised to make another championship run in 2013. Miami hasn’t lost a game in over a month, but their last loss came against their biggest NBA title threat: the Indiana Pacers.
The Heat have beaten playoff contenders like the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets. Despite a degree of dominance and a 44-14 record to lead the Eastern Conference, Miami still hasn’t beaten Indiana.
The Pacers shut down Miami’s offense in an 87-77 January win. They followed that up with a convincing 13-point victory over the Heat on Feb. 1.
A major reason for the Heat’s inability to beat the Pacers is rebounding. Indiana is not only one of the best defensive teams in the league (giving up just 89.6 points per game on average), but they’re also the best in the NBA at pounding the glass. The Pacers grab 45.7 rebounds per game and have a league-best rebound differential of plus-4.7.
The Pacers are an elite rebounding team, and it doesn’t help that Miami ranks dead last in the league in that category, averaging 38.8 boards per game.
In the two matchups against Miami this season, Indiana has won the combined rebounding battle 89-61.
In the first matchup, Indiana had three different players grab double-digit rebounds. Roy Hibbert had 14 (nine on the offensive end), while David West and Paul George added 11 boards apiece.
In the second game between these two Eastern Conference foes, the Heat grabbed just 25 total rebounds through four quarters of play. They were bullied down low by the play of West, who finished with 30 points.
The Pacers are a huge threat to Miami because of their ability to hit the glass and overwhelm the Heat with interior size. In addition to those factors, their elite defense is just as important.
No team in the NBA has the defensive prowess to shut down the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Nevertheless, the Pacers’ overall defensive skills have caused problems for Miami during the 2012-13 campaign.
Indiana held Miami to 41.2 percent shooting in their first meeting (and won the game despite shooting a paltry 36.3 percent themselves). The two X-factors for Indy against the Heat will be Hibbert and West down in the post, collecting defensive and offensive rebounds.
While Indy’s two bigs hold a lot of responsibility, the underrated defensive stars, George Hill, Lance Stephenson, and Paul George, will be equally as important (if not more so).
Behind a first time All-Star in George – and his league-leading five defensive win shares – those three Pacers combine for 10.8 win shares on the defensive end, according to Basketball Reference.
In addition to that, those three guys are holding opponents to impressively low Player Efficiency Ratings.
Stephenson holds opponents to a 13.9 PER, while Hill holds opponents to a 12.4 PER. But leading the way again is George. The 22-year-old star is holding opponents to an 11.1 PER, according to 82games.com.
Given that James and Wade both rank in the top five in the NBA in PER, limiting what they’re able to do on the court (at least to some degree) gives the Pacers a big advantage.
Of course, that doesn't even mention the impact Danny Granger could have when he returns to full health. Granger has been a non-factor for the Pacers this season due to injuries that have held him out of all but five games. In the five games that Granger has played, he hasn't notched more than 19 minutes and has been a shell of his former self.
Nevertheless, Granger was a big factor for the Pacers in the playoffs last year. Against the Heat, he had a 17-point, seven-rebound effort in a Game 3 win. He scored in double figures in five of the six games of the series, and although Indy didn't pull off the upset, he was a leader on the court for the Pacers who showed a fearless demeanor.
His health remains a big question mark (and Indy has been fine to this point without him). Despite that fact, Granger could provide a nice offensive spark to an elite defensive team. That would only be an improvement, as the Pacers need to make up for a lack of scoring.
The Miami Heat have a final opportunity to flip the script on the Pacers’ distinct matchup advantage on Sunday. If they fall to 0-3 on the season against Indy, the Pacers will have sky-high confidence should they face the Heat come playoff time.
While the Thunder and Spurs are recognized as Western Conference juggernauts, the team with the best chance to take down the mighty Heat is the underrated Indiana Pacers.