The Miami Heat are the obvious favorites to advance to the NBA Finals out of the Eastern Conference, but don’t be surprised if the Indiana Pacers send the Heat packing.
After Pacers head coach Frank Vogel’s comments were misquoted and jumped on by superstar LeBron James (via ESPN), Vogel came back to the media and clarified that he has “great respect for LBJ and the champs.”
Don’t misinterpret Vogel’s second round of comments. Neither he nor his players are intimidated by the Heat. If it hadn’t caused such a stir, the third-year coach surely would have stuck with his original quote: that Miami is the “next team in our way.”
The Pacers are determined and believe they can win. They want revenge after being ousted by Miami in 2012.
Here are the ways Indiana can pull off a shocking upset of the NBA’s top squad.
The Pacers were able to defeat the New York Knicks by simply owning them inside. Roy Hibbert demolished Tyson Chandler.
The Bulls gave the Heat trouble by “uglying up” games against them. Chicago didn’t have enough depth in the long run to defeat LeBron and company, but it definitely rattled the Heat and exposed a weakness.
Indiana is great on defense and extremely big. It was second in the regular season in points allowed per game and first in rebounds per game.
If the third seed out of the East can continue to play tough defense inside, the Heat will struggle in the series. Miami was 1-2 against Indiana in the regular season. In those two losses, it was limited to 61 field-goal makes on 138 attempts (44.2 percent).
That’s not exactly stifling, but it’s pretty good against the league’s most efficient team (49.6 percent in the regular season). In Miami’s lone victory against Indiana, it shot 55.9 percent from the field.
The number of points scored by the Heat was another key variable between these teams. This trend dates back to the 2012 playoffs. In the most recent regular season and last year’s postseason, the Pacers went 4-1 when the Heat didn’t break 100 points, but were 0-4 when Miami passed the century mark.
Setting the vibe with quality, physical defense is of the utmost importance against the defending champs. Indiana has the ability to win the battle in the paint, which will put it in position to compete in every game.
Erik Spoelstra received positive accolades for his coaching decision to give Miami’s players more freedom and go position-less. Spoelstra finished second in Coach of the Year voting, while Vogel finished a distant fifth.
However, Vogel has coached just as well as Spoelstra head-to-head.
Both coaches made fantastic halftime adjustments during the regular season. In the third quarter, the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers were second and third (respectively) in point differential, via NBA.com.
Not surprisingly, many of the games between these two teams were decided in that quarter. Here are the points scored by each team in the third, along with the eventual victor:
Game 1: MIA 28, IND 22; Miami
Game 2: MIA 14, IND 28; Indiana
Game 3: MIA 12, IND 26; Indiana
Game 4: MIA 30, IND 16; Miami
Game 5: MIA 27, IND 17; Miami
Game 6: MIA 28, IND 16; Miami
2013 Regular Season
Game 1: MIA 15, IND 25; Indiana
Game 2: MIA 20, IND 27; Indiana
Game 3: MIA 23, IND 19; Miami
The average difference in third quarter scoring in those games is about 10.1 points. Whichever team won the third quarter won the game.
If Vogel consistently creates a good game plan at halftime, the Pacers can and will defeat the Heat.
Make LeBron Uncomfortable
This one goes hand in hand with the interior defense. If Roy Hibbert can shut down Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade is still somewhat hobbled, LeBron has to take over.
Obviously LeBron is capable of taking over games. But putting him out of his comfort zone could make a difference.
Late in Game 1 against the Bulls, the Heat looked shocked, disorganized and lackadaisical. Crunch time was reminiscent of their NBA Finals against the Mavericks.
Chicago hit them its their best, most physical shot, and it kind of rattled them.
Now imagine a much deeper Pacers team doing that.
Indiana has to play tough, hard defense both on the inside and against LeBron. If it succeeds, it can slow down the four-time MVP.
Dime magazine pointed out that Paul George, an All-Defensive Second Team selection, could give the Pacers a huge boost by taking LeBron out of his comfort zone. Jimmy Butler was able to do it in stretches, so why not George?
George already did an amazing job in the first regular-season victory against the league’s best player: He had 29 points to James’ 22. After the game, he said (via ESPN): “I definitely wanted to battle him.”
The young forward relishes the opportunity, and George’s defense could be the X-factor. Over the same nine games referenced earlier against the Pacers, King James had 7.2 assists per game in wins and 3.75 assists per game in losses.
That huge discrepancy is the result of LeBron feeling a little uncomfortable. When James is playing naturally, those extra passes come easily.
The importance of those assists can’t be understated. For example, in the regular-season win over Indiana during the streak, James was the fourth-leading scorer (only 13 points), but led the team with seven assists. Even if LeBron isn’t scoring, he’s creating offense for his teammates.
It may not be a popular pick, but the Indiana Pacers are definitely capable of knocking off the Miami Heat. Physical, tenacious defense from the Pacers (especially Hibbert and George) combined with great coaching by Vogel will send this underdog to the NBA Finals.
*All unattributed statistics courtesy of ESPN.com.