The NBA puts on a brilliant Sunday showcase on a weekly basis for rabid basketball fans, and this week is no different. Capping off the national television schedule will be a possible Eastern Conference finals preview, as the Indiana Pacers descend onto South Beach to take on the Miami Heat.
As you may have heard on a sports channel or seventy, Miami heads into Sunday's contest with a 17-game winning streak. That run has put the team essentially into "lock" status as the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed and pretty much ended all debate over who the league's MVP will be this season.
Already having the most efficient season of his career, LeBron James has taken it to another level as of late. He's averaging 28.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game while shooting an astounding 60.6 percent from the field. Apologies to Kevin Durant, but you don't stand a chance.
On the other hand, Miami's current rampage over the NBA world started after a notable occurrence: a loss to these Pacers. Indiana has beaten Miami both times the two sides have played in 2012-13 and the two sides battled through a thrilling six-game series during last year's playoffs.
LeBron and Co. may have the league at their feet, but there won't be an ounce of intimidation heading at AmericanAirlines Arena. With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of everything you need to know about Sunday's clash of Eastern Conference titans.
Start Time: Sunday, March 10 at 6 p.m. ET
Location: AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami
Team Records: Indiana Pacers (39-23) vs. Miami Heat (46-14)
TV Info: NBATV
Live Stream: NBA League Pass (Pay Service, Audio Only)
Pacers Injury Report (Via CBS Sports):
SF Danny Granger, Knee, Out
Heat Injury Report (Via CBS Sports):
Key Storyline: Can Miami Make It 18 Straight?
We've all heard about Miami's streak ad nauseam at this point. The Heat have reeled off 17 straight wins since their last meeting with the Pacers, a streak that they stretched to an NBA season-high 18 with a win, ironically, against Indiana. Because, you know, life is symmetrical in that way and such.
What hasn't been covered enough is the sheer scope of Miami's dominance over this run—on both ends of the floor. Over their past 17 games, the Heat have scored approximately 1.139 points per possession, a rate that would dwarf Oklahoma City's league-best rate of 1.109 PPP over the course of a season.
Defensively, they have only improved slightly over the streak's entirety, but have been unbelievably stingy as it has gone on. The past five games have seen the Heat give up just 0.964 points per possession, which would rank second behind Indiana on a season-long level.
To recap: Miami is scoring more efficiently than any other team and defending more efficiently more than any other team, save one. Other than that, they might as well be the Bobcats.
Indiana is no slouch by any stretch of the imagination. The team has gotten markedly better as the season has gone along—especially on the offensive end—and has already taken down the Heat twice.
What will be interesting is if the Pacers are able to slay this version of the NBA's most fearsome dragon.
Key Matchup: LeBron James vs. Paul George
If there has been one universal truth during the 2012-13 NBA season, it’s that you’re not forcing LeBron James into a “bad” game. He’s scored below the 20-point mark just three times all season long, made less than half of his shots in just nine contests and has season-long statistics that could make history.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, James is on pace to become the first player in league history to finish with averages of more than 26 points, eight rebounds and seven assists while shooting 56 percent or better from the floor. In other words: LeBron does everything and he does it more efficiently than any player in league history.
So, yes, stopping him...not going to happen. Therefore, opposing teams are forced to cater their game plan around taking James from “historically great” to “just plain ordinarily great.”
In two games versus the Pacers this season, they have done a solid job, thanks mostly to the excellence of Paul George. Ascendant as George has been in taking over the primary scorer’s role from Danny Granger, he remains one of the league’s five best perimeter defenders. He was fantastic in the playoffs against James last season, and LeBron is averaging “just” 25.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists on 51.4 percent shooting—all below his season averages.
What the Pacers—and George in particular—do best is scout James and know where to “force” his shots. In the teams’ first matchup in January, George did an excellent job of forcing LeBron to his left for long mid-range jumpers.
Take a look at James’ shot chart in that matchup, compared to how he’s fared from those spots for the season, per NBA.com.
January versus Indiana:
LeBron still finished that initial matchup against George with 22 points and 10 rebounds, but he took eight shots from positions where he’s league-average or worse and also had seven turnovers. That game was one of the few times this season where James was the obvious weak link, where he was essentially carried by Wade.
As he’s prone to do, James fared far better as a shooter the second time around. He almost completely eschewed the mid-range game, adjusting to George’s strong perimeter defense by setting up in the post far more. The result was a better game shooting-wise, scoring 28 points and going to the line 11 times.
Indiana won both matchups, so it's not like George failed the second time around. But I'm sure Frank Vogel will certainly be looking for a shot chart far more like the first game than the second on Sunday.
X-Factor: Roy Hibbert
By now, most in the greater Indiana area have come to the realization that Roy Hibbert is and probably always will be a dreadful offensive player. He’s shooting 42.8 percent from the field this season, down from a semi-promising 49.7 percent rate last season, and has regressed in the place Indiana needs him most: around the rim.
According to HoopData, Hibbert is shooting an embarrassingly low 49.2 percent at the rim this season. Among players who shoot four or more times from that spot per game, he’s the only guy who makes less than half of his shots, and among players who get more than 25 minutes per night, only Ricky Rubio ranks worse overall.
This is the part of the program where I remind you that Roy Hibbert is a 7’2” center without any pure shooting skills to speak of. Among “big men,” only Chuck Hayes, Jason Collins, Jared Jeffries and Reggie Evans are worse around the basket. Again, here is where I remind you that Hibbert signed a maximum contract extension with the Pacers last summer.
Luckily for Hibbert, there are two ends of the floor—and he may be the NBA’s best interior defender at that end. It’s something that you see when watching the Pacers play. Hibbert is always around the ball, adjusting opposing teams’ shots far more than even his 2.7 blocks per game suggests.
There just wasn’t a great way to quantify Hibbert’s interior defense until recently. At the 2013 Sloan Conference, Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry presented a research paper based on the tracking data of STATS LLC’s SportsVu cameras. The results, which were taken from last season’s tracking data, essentially solidified what we already know: Hibbert is among the two or three best interior defenders in the league.
Though the data is not out for this season—at least publicly—it’s safe to say that Hibbert is again wreaking havoc on opposing teams at the rim. HoopData measures the Pacers as being the NBA’s best defensive team at the rim, allowing an opposing field goal percentage of 58.5—nearly six percent worse than the league average.
Why is that important? Because, as you might have guessed, the Heat take and make an inordinate amount of shots from that area. Miami leads the NBA with a 72 percent rate around the rim, per HoopData.
Hibbert may force the Pacers to play four-on-five on the offensive end, but his excellence on defense is a great deal of what allows Indiana to compete with Miami on a regular basis.
Projected Starting Lineups
PG: George Hill
SG: Lance Stephenson
SF: Paul George
PF: David West
C: Roy Hibbert
PG: Mario Chalmers
SG: Dwyane Wade
SF: LeBron James
PF: Udonis Haslem
C: Chris Bosh
The Pacers are one of a select few Eastern Conference teams that can even sniff the same stratosphere as the Heat. We've covered in great length why that's the case—specifically their defensive tenacity—and it's hard to expect anything different. So while Miami has 17 straight wins, those first two games matter just as much if not more.
Who ya got?
We're going to be in for a doozy, folks.
That said, it's impossible to pick against the Heat at this point. They are playing at a higher level than we have seen any team this season on both ends of the floor, and while most games are played in a vacuum, this one isn't. Miami knows Indiana "has its number" and about the streak, so expect playoff-level intensity coming from the defending champs at home.
This has game of the year potential, but expect the Heat to stretch their streak to 18 in a row.
Final Score Prediction: Heat 96, Pacers 92