It was about this time one year ago at this time that the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers were facing off in their second-round NBA playoff matchup, and the NBA punditry was having its favorite conversation at the time: Is LeBron James "clutch" enough to lead a championship team.
Over the past 12 months, many great things have happened in the NBA. That conversation meeting a Mortal Kombat-style demise is arguably the best.
James again proved why the "clutch gene" conversation was inane again on Wednesday night, scoring a game-winning layup as time expired to give Miami a Game 1 victory in its Eastern Conference Finals matchup versus the Pacers.
It was a contest that only heightens the intrigue for this series, which will return to action on Friday at AmericanAirlines Arena. Just 48 hours ago, the casual NBA fan saw—possibly for the first time—Paul George's ascent to superstardom. His jaw-dropping three-pointer to send the game to overtime and cold-blooded knocking down of three free-throws to put Indiana ahead by a point with 2.2 seconds remaining would have been the story had LeBron, you know, been a human being or something.
This series may turn into a carbon copy of Round 2, with the Pacers only putting up something that resembles a "good job, good effort" en route to Miami advancing to the NBA finals. Or Indiana could use the momentum and confidence gathered from Game 1's close call and put a real scare into the defending champs.
Either way, this series is an absolute godsend for NBA junkies who love watching both ends of the floor. With that in mind, here is a complete preview for Friday night's Game 2 action.
When: Friday, May 24, at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami
Do the Heat Have an Answer for David West?
While everyone rightfully went into a tizzy about Paul George making The Leap right before our eyes in the second half and overtime, it was David West who provided the steadying hand for Indiana in the first three quarters.
West shot 9-of-12 in the first three frames, frustrating the Heat with his ability to make shots all over the floor. The always underrated forward finished the game with 26 points and five rebounds, which in and of itself isn't that disconcerting for the Heat. They knew West was hell on wheels for smaller big men coming into the series, and he had success against them in the regular season.
Miami's relative weakness in front-line defense was covered plenty in the seemingly never-ending wait for this series to begin. Chris Bosh's primary defensive job will be Roy Hibbert, and Shane Battier isn't big enough with him to bang down in the post. West isn't one to shy away from contact, either, so Indiana will look to take advantage of West mismatches as much as it can.
What we need to watch in this series is how the Heat choose to combat the advantage everyone knows West has. In Game 1, as it was in the regular season and as I suspect it will be in the remainder of the series, Erik Spoelstra had his bigs front West in the post any time they could.
On this play, Udonis Haslem's presence on the floor allows Bosh to camp out on West. The Bosh-West matchup is one where Miami will always want to front the Pacers big man because Bosh's length makes those tricky lob passes over the top nearly impossible. Though Bosh does a pretty good job of keeping West at bay here, you see the all-around threat he poses by knocking down a jumper.
Of course, David West wouldn't be having a David West game if he wasn't acting as a battering ram in the low post. Here West just absolutely abuses Chris Andersen, who is possibly the only non-LeBron player on the Heat's roster capable of guarding him on paper.
Just watch Dwyane Wade's eyes as he halfheartedly follows Sam Young across the baseline. He's infinitely more concerned about West and that will only continue throughout the series.
Indiana will need Paul George to be its best player in this series to compete. But it will need West to continue dominating the way he did in Game 1 almost as badly.
Can the Heat Continue Limiting the Roy Hibbert Effect?
I'm not sure whether you've heard this or not, but folks were pretty upset with Pacers coach Frank Vogel for keeping Hibbert on the bench for Miami's final possession. If you hadn't heard, well, just do a quick Twitter search consisting of Hibbert, Vogel and any vile four-letter word normally reserved for longshoremen.
You'll get a good idea of how people felt then. We're not going to waste our time feeding into this nonsense. I probably would have had Hibbert on the floor, but Vogel's strategy behind the move was sound. He wanted to be able to switch through Miami's array of off-the-ball screens on the inbounds play, and the strategy might have paid off had Paul George not lost just enough balance to allow James to go blowing past him
Whatever. If someone brings this one play up in a bar over the next few days, you can point to a ton of plays where Miami scored on Hibbert at the rim in Game 1.
In Round 2, the Knicks' offensive efficiency bottomed out for two reasons. One was that George had the lateral quickness and strength (for the most part) to handle Carmelo Anthony and force bad perimeter shots. The other, more important factor, was that Hibbert's presence demoralized New York at the rim.
The Knicks shot an absolutely abhorrent 45.5 percent against Indiana within five feet in their series and an even more dreadful 47.7 percent in the restricted area, per NBA.com. Both of those numbers are about eight percent worse than the Bobcats' league-worst percentages during the regular season. While the remainder of the Pacers' NBA-best defense deserves credit, Hibbert was an absolute menace on pick-and-roll plays and he made Tyson Chandler look decrepit for most of the series.
Indiana learned how quickly things can change when the world's best player comes around. In Game 1, the Heat shot 73 percent of their shots within five feet and buried 26 baskets inside the restricted area, per NBA.com.
Small sample sizes apply of course, but the Heat got past Indiana's stalwart perimeter defense with ease and finished when they got there. Most of that involved lulling Hibbert out a little too far in rim-protector mode and dishing off to his man on the baseline, usually Chris Andersen on Wednesday night.
Disconcerting for Hibbert and Co. was that Miami wasn't doing anything that revolutionary. The Heat would run a pick-and-pop with James and Bosh, LeBron gets a head of steam to draw Hibbert out and then dishes to the open man.
There is no trickery or double-screen action here. Just fantastic execution from the NBA's best offense.
New York seemingly sent every variation of a pick-and-roll known to NBAkind at Indiana and still couldn't get anything going. The sheer will of James is always going to bring Hibbert a little farther out than he wants to be, and even when LeBron takes that shot Andersen or whomever is there with the follow-up.
It's hard to say how Indiana should defend against this. Vogel could try playing Hibbert on Bosh, but Bosh's ability to knock down 18-footers deserves respect and might do more harm than good. It's a heady conundrum for a head coach to have, but Vogel has to figure something out soon or the Pacers will lose one of their biggest advantages.
Can Either Team Buy a Bucket From Three-Point Land?
Hibbert may not have been David Robinson circa 1991-92 protecting the rim in Game 1, but it would be patently unfair to say Indiana played a poor defensive game. The Pacers force Miami, the league's most efficient offense during the regular season, to have a below-average scoring rate on Wednesday. The Heat's 101 points per 100 possessions would have ranked just below the Boston Celtics' 20th-ranked offense in the regular season
How was Indiana able to limit the Heat's efficiency when they were able to score at video-game levels around the rim? By protecting the arc, that's how.
Miami shot just 5-of-18 from distance, as Mario Chalmers was the only semi-effective shooter from long range. He made both of his three-point attempts. In fact, Miami made just 15 shots outside the restricted area the entire contest and shot 30 percent on those attempts.
For you baseball folks who just happened to accidentally stumble upon an NBA article, batting .300 isn't good around these parts. Especially when much of a team's offense is predicated on taking good, open three-pointers and knocking them down at an elite rate the way Miami's is. The Heat averaged the sixth-most three-pointers per game this season and hit just below 40 percent, per NBA.com.
Indiana's defensive system prides itself on taking away three-pointers, especially the juicy corner looks. Pacers opponents shot a league-low 32.7 percent from three-land against them during the regular season, and only the Chicago Bulls allowed teams to shoot fewer attempts.
Miami had trouble finding good looks against Indiana from distance in the regular season, something that could cost the defending champs a game in this series.
The problem—at least from the Pacers' perspective—is that Indiana couldn't shoot worth a damn in Game 1, either. George knocked down three of his six attempts from distance, but the remaining Pacers shot a crisp 1-of-8 beyond the arc. Included in that wonderful percentage was Lance Stephenson, whose 0-of-5 rate from deep was again proof that the Lance Stephenson self-awareness calibrator was on the fritz again.
The Pacers aren't an elite shooting team from distance. They were about league average from an attempts and percentage standpoint. However, Indiana has shot 30.7 percent from three-point land during the playoffs while taking a higher number of shots. The Pacers are trying to keep defenses honest on the perimeter by jacking up the shots afforded.
It's just not working. While those shots didn't have to fall against an overmatched Hawks team or a self-combusting Knicks squad, the margin of error here for Indiana is nil. The David West bully pulpit and Paul George superhero act can keep them around in games, but you can't beat the human cyborg LeBron James and his sidekicks four times out of six without playing beyond the realm of normal expectations.
For Indiana, that means hitting threes. And they better do it fast before those shots start falling for Miami.
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