In reigning MVP LeBron James, the Miami Heat have a superstar player capable of shouldering his franchise and pushing it through to the NBA Finals.
But their star-studded roster was built in a way that those heroic efforts from King James weren't supposed to be needed on a nightly basis. Thus, Heat's disastrous offensive showing in their 99-92 Game 4 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday nigh suggests that anything less may spell an early end to Miami's title defense hopes.
The Pacers have their own superstar-in-the-making in Paul George, but they showed that they're able to shrug off one of his sluggish nights and still find success in this now-three-game series.
James tallied a game-high 24 points in Game 4, but he missed the final 56 seconds of the contest after picking up his sixth foul on the offensive end. Miami went scoreless on its final three possessions without James on the floor.
George had more than his fair share of offensive struggles (12 points, 4-of-10 from the field; game-high five turnovers, one of which came with just 36.7 seconds left in regulation), but his supporting staff was more than ready to do the heavy lifting.
All five Pacers starters scored in double figures, led by Roy Hibbert's 23, while Indiana bolstered its suffocating defense with an efficient showing on the offensive end:
Pacers shot 50% tonight, Heat 39%. Pacers 49 rebounds, Heat 30. #Pacers win, 99-92.— InsideHoops.com (@InsideHoops) May 29, 2013
Efficiency never entered the discussion for Miami, which couldn't shake a quiet night from its vaunted Big Three:
Miami shot 39% from the field today. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh shot a combined 14-of-39 from the field (35.8%).— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) May 29, 2013
Experience is supposed to take center stage as the seconds tick down and the magnitude of the moment sets in. But the defending champs appeared to tighten up over the game's final stretch, while the Pacers—a team that hasn't ventured this far in the postseason since 2004—grabbed the lead and then extended it:
Heat scored just 3 Pts (LeBron 3) on 9 Poss in final 5 min. 1-9 FG (all jumpers), 2 TO on questionable calls (LeBron 6th foul, Wade travel).— Alok Pattani (@AlokPattaniESPN) May 29, 2013
When Miami's clicking on all cylinders, it has the bodies to overwhelm its opponents with a deep, balanced attack. The Heat did just that in their runaway 114-96 win in Game 3, getting double-digit nights from five different players and at least five points from four others.
But for a team that's so dependent on jump shots, when matched up against a tenacious defense that refuses to yield high-percentage looks, that depth tends to come and go.
Inconsistent offensive efforts aren't unique to Miami in this series. There's no way Indiana planned on Lance Stephenson's 20 points (on 9-of-15 shooting) in Game 4, not after he'd totaled just 24 points on 25.0 percent shooting in the first three games combined.
But the Pacers know where their advantage in this series lies: on the backs of their two bruisers in the middle. Hibbert and David West outscored Miami's starting frontcourt 37-13 on Tuesday night and held a 24-5 edge on the glass over their counterparts.
Miami's not going to grow between now and Game 5 on Thursday night, and Erik Spoelstra will have a hard time manipulating his rotations to keep more size on the floor.
Chris Andersen picked up at least four personal fouls for the third straight game off the bench. Spoelstra's reserve crew is largely devoid of bulk beyond Andersen, save for the offensively challenged, space-killing Joel Anthony.
That means West and Hibbert (and George, Stephenson and George Hill if they keep attacking the basket) are going to continue being a problem for Miami's defense. Same goes for rebounding, a season-long struggle for the Heat and one that won't go away in this series. Miami has yet to register better than a minus-five performance on the glass in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Miami's best effort trumps anything that Indiana can put together, which isn't a knock on the Pacers by any stretch—just a testament to the Heat's tremendous level of talent.
Miami faced a nine-point deficit, 81-72, at the 9:17 mark of the fourth quarter and then completely erased it with a 9-2 run in less than three minutes. The Heat buckled down defensively, registering a pair of blocks and forcing a pair of turnovers over that stretch. They relentlessly attacked the Pacers' interior, and when the defense collapsed, James buried a three.
Channeling that frenetic energy for a full 48 minutes has been a struggle for the Heat throughout the season. But if Spoelstra can find it, it's curtains for the Pacers.
Conventional wisdom says that Indiana has a strong chance to upset Miami, that a Pacers' series win might not even be considered an upset. Teams traditionally win with size and defense, and Indiana has both in droves.
Who will represent the East in the 2013 NBA Finals?
But conventional wisdom can't account for the amazingly unique skill set that James possesses. And it's never seen an offensive attack as versatile as Spoelstra's positionless system.
There may be some peaks and valleys over the final three games of this series—and, yes, signs point to all three games being necessary to crown an Eastern Conference champ—but the odds still say Miami's going to be the team that finally emerges from this slugfest.
You don't have to believe in the Heat's shooters suddenly rediscovering their stroke; you don't have to buy into Spoelstra being a mastermind tactician.
But you can't forget about the myriad magical moments that we've all witnessed from King James.
The Heat have him, and the Pacers don't.