As the Indiana Pacers take control of their second-round series, it seems that their hard-headed defense is on a collision course with the Miami Heat, ready to slow them down and threaten their chances at repeating as NBA champions.
Sure, they still have a game to win after taking three of the first four from the New York Knicks, but it seems safe to at least talk about their potential meeting with the Heat (sorry Bulls, I'm counting you guys out too).
Kenny Smith on whether the Knicks are done: "They're not done. But the timer's gone off. I'm gonna go check the oven." #genius— Rob Phillips (@robphillips3) May 15, 2013
New York has yet to get its offense rolling in the postseason, and for it to pull out three straight wins seems rather improbable. It might be as improbable as the Pacers somehow beating Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals.
After seeing the Pacers give the Heat a bit of a rough go in the second round last season, it seems as if this could be the best possible matchup from an entertainment standpoint...and just about the worst if you're the Heat.
Indiana won two of its first three games in the playoffs against the Heat in 2012 before losing three in a row and dropping the series, 4-2.
In their two wins, the Pacers held Miami to 75 points in each game, and just 81.7 points through the first three.
After Game 3, the Pacers gave up an average of 107 points over the course of the final three games and didn't score more than 93 themselves. In short, Miami manhandled them.
Not even taking Dwyane Wade's gimpy knee into account, the Pacers, however, had another year to grow as a team. Paul George is this year's Most Improved Player and their defense has gone from ninth in the league all the way up to first. Of course, they're also without Danny Granger, but they can now boast a somehow useful Lance Stephenson.
What about Indiana's improvement makes it a threat to the Heat? It's that much-improved defense that has allowed the Pacers to lock down the Knicks and push them to the brink of elimination.
While the Pacers have a terrific low-post presence with Roy Hibbert and David West—two big, intimidating bodies—they have been most impressive when it comes to defending the three-point line. Teams shot just 32.7 percent against the Pacers from long range this season, tops in the NBA.
Not only that, but with Stephenson, Paul George, George Hill and even Tyler Hansbrough, they've got a bevy of players that are able to slow down and even stop an offense in transition. With fast, athletic and smart defenders, Indiana's defense is giving up just 10 fast-break points per game, the best efficiency in the NBA.
Furthermore, those bruisers in the paint allowed an average of just 35.5 points in the paint per game. Once again, that's the best in the league.
So how do you beat the Pacers when they're in lockdown defense mode, tightly contesting three-pointers, refusing to allow transition points and mauling anybody who ventures into the paint? You've got to make mid-range jumpers.
One look at Miami's shot chart for the season should tell you that the Heat have no problem shooting from mid-range, but that's not the point.
The Pacers force teams to make the least useful shots on the floor in order to beat them, thereby generally giving them a chance in most every game.
I know what the next thought has to be: Miami is currently flipping the script on a terrific defensive squad in its series against Chicago, so can't it just do the same thing with the Pacers?
Honestly, yes, that's entirely possible. However, the style of defense that Chicago has been forced to play against Miami is very different from Indiana's. While the Bulls are forced to punch teams in the mouth and drag games down into the mud in order to dictate their preferred pace, the Pacers just beat what the opposition gives them.
Sure, they'll attempt to control the pace of games, but much of that is done with a methodical offense that uses the entire shot clock and inhales offensive rebounds.
Indiana has allowed Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith to play their isolation game. The Pacers simply play them one-on-one and swarm when it seems a shot is coming. If New York decides the pick-and-roll is a wiser choice (as it's done in Games 3 and 4), Indiana simply takes that in stride and swarms the guy coming off the pick, or the roller with one of its big men in the paint.
Not only do the Pacers have a terrific defensive game plan, but they've got a group of players who are individually great defenders.
Their chances to beat the Heat in a seven-game series remain pretty long, but with the defense they boast, they've got the best shot of any team in the East.