What a difference 48 hours makes.
When the Indiana Pacers walked out of AmericanAirlines Arena dejected, having allowed the game's best player to drive a stake into their heart for a game-winning basket in Game 1, it looked like the underdog had blown its chance.
The Pacers are good, but you don't get many opportunities to steal a game at home from a Miami Heat team that had won 46 of its last 49 games coming into Friday night. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are too great. You give them your best punch and they come away unscathed? Expect a size-15 boot coming straight to your gullet for the next three contests.
At least that's how the theory went prior to Friday night.
The Pacers, again buoyed by their stifling defense, again played Miami to a standstill until the game's final minute. Only this time, it was James turning the ball over instead of driving for a game-winning layup and George Hill knocking down cold-blooded free throws the same way Paul George did in Game 1—only these sent Indiana to a 97-93 victory.
The old saying goes that a series never begins until a road team wins. Anyone who watched Game 1 knows that theory is poppycock. Heat-Pacers was going to be a redux of their epic 2012 series on steroids from the moment the first tip-off came off a referee's hands.
What Game 2 proved is that Indiana isn't just a pesky gnat in Miami's face the same way the Bulls were in Round 2. Theses Pacers can actually win this thing. With just hours remaining until Game 3 gets underway, let's take a look at everything you need to know about Sunday's contest.
When: Sunday, May 26 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis
Key Storylines to Watch
The Hibbert Effect
Nearly the entire conversation following Game 1 was about Frank Vogel's decision to sit Roy Hibbert on the Heat's final offensive possession. You know what happened next. LeBron James caught an entry pass at the top of the key, morphed into Voltron mode and blew past Paul George for an easy layup all in the span of 2.2 seconds.
The theory goes had Hibbert been in the game instead of Sam Young, the help defender on James' drive, then perhaps Indiana is heading back home ahead 2-0 for the series. Hibbert is one of the league's best interior defenders—if not the best—and his presence alone could have been enough to intimidate James.
Let us not go down that rabbit hole again. I've said my piece on the matter—that we're judging the result, not the process of the decision—and stand by what I said. While Vogel's decision isn't one that I would have made, it was completely understandable for anyone who understands the defensive X's and O's that went into that scenario.
What we are going to discuss, though, is Hibbert's utter obliteration of Miami in Game 2. The seven-footer was on the floor for 39 minutes of the contest, including crunch time, and made almost every one of them count. He scored 29 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, while taking advantage of Miami's smaller defenders for a 10-of-15 scoring rate.
Through two games—small sample size alert—Hibbert is averaging 24 points, 9.5 rebounds and is shooting 57.6 percent from the floor.
We knew coming into the series that the Heat had no answer for Hibbert. He's too strong for Chris Bosh, too long for Chris Andersen and too everything for the decomposing Udonis Haslem. No one expected him to be this good. Hibbert shot a dreadful 44.8 percent during the regular season and his 53.6 percent rate at the rim was the worst in the league against centers.
Outside of trying experimental human growth procedures to create a seven-footer, Miami's only options are to hope for a regression to the mean or double-team Hibbert whenever it can.
And of course we just went about 400 words without discussing Hibbert's defense—akin to going an equal length on Chris Rock and not mentioning Bigger & Blacker. Hibbert's rim protection was the underrated story by the talking heads coming into this series, but it's became the overarching theme since the moment Vogel left him on the bench.
As I noted before Game 2, Hibbert wasn't at his best on Wednesday night. The Heat made 26 baskets in the restricted area while shooting about 73 percent, per NBA.com. They were able to do this by running right at Hibbert after high pick-and-rolls and then dishing to his man at the last possible second.
Miami made 10 buckets off those types of plays in Game 1 on 12 attempts. They made one such basket on Friday, per Synergy Sports. Part of the reason for that is the Pacers had David West be much more aggressive on his hedge than he was in Game 2. Instead of quickly flashing toward the ball-handler, an Indiana staple, West was stayed out on plays involving James and Wade for an extra beat or two.
That allows Hibbert to stay in position longer and for Wade or James' original defender to have more time to get back on their man. The result was near-catastrophic for the Heat. They still shot 66.7 percent on shots inside the restricted area, but they took only 24—a figure two less than the amount they made in Game 1.
Things are going to keep being lean offensively if the Heat can't find a way to adjust going forward.
Can Anyone Find Dwyane Wade?
Because his teammates would sure love to know where he's at. In the first two games of this series, Wade has looked like an absolute shell of himself. He scored a nondescript 19 points in Game 1, getting to the free-throw line just four times in 41 minutes before fouling out. While he gets credit for 10 of those points coming in the fourth quarter and overtime, Wade seemed noticeably hobbled by a bone bruise in his knee.
Wade was even more absent in Game 2. The Artist Formerly Known as Flash scored just 14 points on 6-of-14 shooting, including a fat goose-egg in the fourth quarter. For the series, he's now averaging 16.5 points, six rebounds and five assists per game—Andre Iguodala numbers without the defense.
(By the way, these are numbers that are actually better than Wade's postseason averages—for whatever that's worth.)
Wade's most notable play of this entire series was his dirty elbow on Lance Stephenson late in the fourth quarter.
While there have been righteous calls for Wade, long one of the league's sneaky-dirty players, to get suspended, I think it's more important we cover why No. 3 went for the elbow—or at least my theory on the subject.
I watched tape on each of Miami's fourth-quarter offensive possessions. Wade, when actually involved in possessions, acted a little more than a decoy. He would run a pseudo ball-handler role for all of about three seconds before playing hot potato with the ball to a shooter. When Wade made his one and only attempt at making a dribble-drive move—which was rooted in George Hill being stuck on him for a possession—he threw up an ugly jumper that went clanging off the rim.
That's been the story for Wade this entire series—hell, the entire postseason for that matter. In the first two games of this series, Wade has been absolutely hounded by Stephenson and unable to make headway in the paint. According to Synergy Sports' tracking data, Wade has taken just nine shots as a pick-and-roll ball-handler in this series. Six of them have been jumpers. That's an awful rate that doesn't even account for the innumerable amount of times Wade passed out of similar situations.
My theory is that it was a frustration foul. That after being defeated by Stephenson up and down the floor for the series' first two games, Wade just snapped.
The Heat better hope that frustration leads to better performances going forward. LeBron is the greatest player in the world, but he cannot win an entire series by himself—at least not against this team. The Pacers make sound defensive adjustments on a game-by-game basis. If Wade isn't healthy enough to get into the lane with Stephenson guarding him, he's essentially a non-entity.
In other words, Flash can't only show flashes of being Flash (sorry). Wade has to show up for Miami to have a chance at breaking this Indiana defense, and the result could be dire if he doesn't.
When you have a team as talented as Miami does and a coach as smart as Erik Spoelstra, things tend to course-correct quickly. The Heat were flummoxed by the Bulls' stalwart defense in Round 2, but adjusted to the ugly style and slowed down pace to take the next four games.
They won't be doing that to Indiana. The Pacers are undefeated at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in these playoffs, having won four of the six contests by double digits and each by at least seven points. While the Knicks and Hawks aren't anywhere near Miami's level, Indiana's proud basketball reputation has reared its head in the postseason and a near-collegiate atmosphere has broken out at games.
Expect more of the same on Sunday. Everyone in this Pacers organization, from Vogel to Hibbert to the man pouring Downy on players' shorts after the games know what a special opportunity this is. To go up 2-1 on the defending champions would create a riotous reaction from fans and hundreds of thousands of words to be spilled on the interwebs and dead trees.
One problem: It's not going to happen. The two games in this series have been separated by a margin of three points, yet one could barely say the Heat played at a "C" level offensively for either contest. Credit of course goes to Indiana's stalwart defense and Wade's ailing knee for making that so. We might never see Miami at its optimum potential whatsoever in this series; the Pacers are that good.
But if there's one game where we'll see a reasonable facsimile of that top-ranked regular season offense, it'll be Sunday. I normally avoid all talks of feelings and motivation and yada yada yada.
I think we get a classic LeBron game here and Wade shows flashes. Call it a feeling or what have you, but that's what predictions are for. Indiana will keep this game close, as it will just about every game in this series. But the Heat will course-correct a bit here and come away with something resembling a "blowout" win for this series.
And by that I mean they'll win by more than five points.
Score Prediction: Heat 99, Pacers 92
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