After LeBron James drove to the rim and stole Game 1 from the Pacers—a win Indiana thought it had locked up—there was the sense it might not get that close again. The underdogs pushed the defending champs and the Heat still pulled it out. Was that as close as Indy was going to get?
That concern flew out the window in Game 2.
Conspicuously missing inside when LeBron hit the game-winner in the opener, Roy Hibbert responded with 29 points and 10 rebounds, disrupting the Heat at both ends of the floor as Indy bullied its way to a four-point win.
As the Heat travel to the unfriendly confines of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, they are playing without home-court advantage and without a sure strategy on how to beat the Pacers.
James is certainly doing his job. He was spectacular in Game 2, pouring in 36 points on 14-of-20 shooting, even as Paul George challenged him with his second-team All-NBA defense.
That said, LeBron received a troubling lack of support in the loss. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did not live up to their star reputations, and no other Heat players scored in double digits. With so little else to fear, Indy was able to overcommit to LeBron and force him into two late victory-clinching turnovers in Game 2.
Can LeBron and company put it together on the road, where their opponent has yet to lose this postseason? Or are the Pacers about to defy all expectations and wrest control of the series from the Heat juggernaut?
Game 3 will help us determine the answer.
Time: Sunday, May 26, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
Series: Tied 1-1
Game 3 Key Storyline: Team Depth
Indiana is giving Miami problems because it is the deeper team in this series.
Of course, no one on the floor is better than LeBron James—as is the case regardless of the opponent—but the next three best players are all Pacers.
George, Hibbert and David West have all been at their very best against the Heat. The Indiana frontcourt has capitalized on Miami's size deficiency, Hibbert and West have hit hook shots at will, and George has attacked the rim with authority.
The disparity is even more palpable when the Pacers are on D.
Indiana sported the most efficient defense in the league during the regular season and has been just as imposing against Miami. With Hibbert standing tall in the middle, the perimeter defenders have free rein to pressure three-point shooters—knowing their 7'2" anchor is waiting to contest any drive.
That's brutal for the Heat, who generate their offensive spacing by surrounding LeBron with effective spot-up threats. Unfortunately, those guys just aren't showing up.
Ray Allen and Shane Battier each hit better than 42 percent of their three attempts during the regular season, but they are a combined 1-of-12 from beyond the arc through two games. Neither is liable to do any damage if they put the ball on the floor, so Indy is suffocating them and removing that element from the Heat offense.
That leaves it up to the Big Three to carry the scoring load, but LeBron is the only one pulling his weight.
Wade is clearly still bothered by a right knee bruise. The injury has been nagging him since March and has prevented him from marshaling his trademark athleticism on more than a handful of plays per game.
As for Bosh, his options are severely limited against the Indy bigs. Regardless of which Pacer is defending him, Bosh doesn't have the strength to get to the rim and finish. That leaves him to score solely as a stretch forward, launching jumpers in order to lure Hibbert outside and to open up the lane.
It's OK for Wade and Bosh to score in the teens when Chris Andersen randomly gets loose inside and ends up with 16 points—as he did in Game 1. However, the Heat cannot count on that, and they will need their stars to shine if they want to break the Pacers D.
Series Star So Far: LeBron James
It's not like the Heat can ask LeBron for anything more than he's already giving them.
He is averaging 33.0 points in this series on 59 percent from the field, and he is tacking on 9.0 rebounds and 6.5 assists to boot. Then consider his elite defense and his unparalleled stamina—he has sat just three minutes in this punishing series—and the four-time MVP's performance just gets otherworldly.
So it's no surprise that Miami's plan in the final minute of Game 2 was to send James into the teeth of the defense and let him make something happen. After all, per Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry, there was no more efficient scoring option in the NBA this season than LeBron James going inside.
Even with Hibbert on the floor this time to contest LeBron's late drive, the Heat's rationale was pretty sound: Attack inside with a guy who shot 72 percent from there this season and let him kick out to an open shooter if the defense collapses.
Confident in their team defense, however, the Pacers got exactly what they wanted. Both of James' late turnovers came from the superstar getting bottled up and West collapsing into the lane to deflect his passes.
LeBron did all he could, but no one else on the floor scared Indy enough to demand attention. As great as James is, he cannot beat the entire Pacers defense himself.
The man needs help.
Projected Starting Lineup for Game 3:
Miami: Mario Chalmers, PG; Dwyane Wade, SG; LeBron James, SF; Udonis Haslem, PF; Chris Bosh, C
Indiana: George Hill, PG; Lance Stephenson, SG; Paul George, SF; David West, PF; Roy Hibbert, C
Heat Injury Report
Pacers Injury Report (via CBSSports.com)
Sam Young (ankle), questionable
Heat Will Win If...
They get Roy Hibbert into foul trouble.
Things get demonstrably easier for the Heat when Hibbert is off the floor. Without that giant stopgap looming in the paint, opportunities to attack the basket and drive and kick will be available. The Indiana guards would have to take a step inside to help on the play, which would create room for those open outside looks Miami craves.
That's how it works when Hibbert leaves the floor: His absence in the middle creates vulnerabilities elsewhere as Indiana adjusts to fill the void.
Since the perimeter defenders can't afford to pressure as much with Hibbert out, the Heat are less susceptible to turnovers. That means Indy's offense misses out on precious transition scoring chances—to say nothing of losing Hibbert's post game and offensive rebounding ability.
And on top of all that, Hibbert is the only player who truly bothers LeBron inside; no matter how the Pacers try to adjust, the difference without him is monumental for James. Per ESPN Stats & Info:
Inciting Hibbert to foul is easier said than done, as he's adept at going straight up to contest shots while avoiding contact and the ref's whistle. Miami might struggle trying to challenge him inside, but that effort will pay dividends when he is off the floor.
Pacers Will Win If...
They slow the pace.
The Pacers are a turnover-prone bunch; no Eastern Conference playoff team coughed it up more during the regular season.
Indy's carelessness with the ball does not bode well against the Heat's deadly transition attack. Miami has taken to hounding George Hill before he passes half court, hoping the point guard gifts them some easy fast-break chances.
It's very difficult for anyone to stop the Heat when they get out and run. For the Pacers and their brutish front line, it's nearly impossible. Hibbert and West have no chance of running the floor, and Indy relies on its starters too heavily to think they they won't tire out in a track meet.
Playing slow allows the Pacers to be more careful with the ball and deprive Miami of those deadly easy buckets. The pace also saves Indy's legs. It's a win-win-win strategy that would allow host Indiana to play its preferred style.
Only one team has executed its game plan for how to attack its opponent in this series. The other team has LeBron James, and thus can never be counted out.
That's why the Heat are going to keep it close in Game 3, but nothing they have shown so far indicates they're going to be able to solve the Pacers on the road.
Indy is not afraid of mighty Miami. The Pacers are bigger, stronger and totally confident that they can impose their will on the defending champs.
Until the Heat demonstrate they can take at least one of Indiana's frontcourt weapons—George, Hibbert or West—out of the game, or until Wade or Bosh plays like a star again, Indiana is already in control of this series.
After Sunday, the box score will reflect that.
This series is going to be a dogfight, and Miami will likely deal the Pacers their first home playoff loss eventually. But first, Indiana is going to take a 2-1 lead on the Heat for the second consecutive postseason.
Pacers 87, Heat 82