The Miami Heat need to forget about the shoddy officiating. Their spotty three-point shooting could use some work, but that's hardly their gravest concern. They might even do well to overlook the fact that their Big Three has, at times, been whittled down to a Big One, with a hobbled Dwyane Wade and an invisible Chris Bosh leaving LeBron James to shoulder a massive load for the defending NBA champs in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Because Miami's most pressing issue at the moment opposite the Indiana Pacers lays not with those who score or even with those dressed in zebra stripes, but rather with its lackluster effort on the defensive end.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted after Miami's 99-92 loss in Game 4, the Heat have allowed the typically anemic Pacers offense to score in this series at a rate that would cause even the bumbling Charlotte Bobcats to cringe:
Forget the nonsense for a second: Indy has put up 111.3 points/100 possessions in this series. Would have led league. Biggest story.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) May 29, 2013
Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin added later that the Heat have allowed the Pacers to recoup nearly 40 percent of their own misses:
Pacers are grabbing the offensive rebound on 39.9% of their missed shots against the Heat this series.— Kurt Helin (@basketballtalk) May 29, 2013
That mark would rank not only as the best in the league this season for Indy, but also as the best of all time, per Basketball Reference (h/t Zach Lowe). Likewise, the Pacers have managed to pummel the Heat defense for 48 points in the paint per 100 possessions through the first four games of this series, including a sturdy 50 such points in Game 4.
To be sure, the general trends at play between the Heat and the Pacers aren't entirely surprising. Everyone and their mother came into this clash knowing that Indy's biggest advantage was its sheer size, particularly with Roy Hibbert and David West up front. Miami, by virtue of its full-fledged small-ball approach, all but conceded that edge from the get-go. Just as it did during the regular season.
In three meetings, two of which went the Pacers' way, the Heat surrendered 105.3 points per 100 possessions, including 38.7 points in the paint per 100 possessions, and allowed Indy to rebound exactly one third (33.3 percent) of its own misfires.
Some of that production is, well, inevitable. Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra and the rest of the Heat organization made a conscious decision this past summer to all but end their pursuit of a traditional center in favor of a more flexible, floor-spreading style of play. Going "small" with Bosh at center and the likes of LeBron, Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier at power forward grants Miami a somewhat unique edge on the offensive end.
But such a strategy necessarily incurs a tradeoff on the other end—one that Spo and company have made willingly and of which they understand the consequences. Playing smaller and quicker against bigger opponents on offense means trying to stop those same bigger opponents with those same smaller and quicker players on defense.
Unless the Heat can magically dig up a seven-foot behemoth who can check Hibbert, defend the rim and not be a complete non-factor offensively between now and the end of the series, they'll simply have to make do with the hand they've dealt for themselves. As such, any attempt to go tit-for-tat, to size up for an extended stretch, would only throw a wrench into Miami's established identity and further jeopardize the team's chances of advancing.
The Heat need only look to the New York Knicks to see what happens when a small-ball team abandons its principles on a whim against Indy. In Game 4 of the Knicks' second-round series against the Pacers, Mike Woodson opted to start Kenyon Martin up front next to Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler to mitigate Indy's size advantage.
The switch didn't help, to say the least. The Pacers still won the battle of the boards decisively, 54-36, while New York's shooters went cold (8-of-28 from three) in what turned out to be a 93-82 defeat for New York.
This isn't to excuse Miami for its lackluster effort on the glass. Under no circumstances should Bosh (i.e. Miami's biggest and tallest player) come up with just three rebounds (and 3.3 per game in this series). Neither should Ray Allen, a 37-year-old who spends the vast majority of his minutes as far away from the basket as possible, lead the Heat in rebounding, as he did with seven caroms off the bench in Game 4. That is, assuming Miami wants and expects to win.
Nor is any of this to suggest that the Heat should accept the Pacers' superior size and all the perks that emanate thereabout without contest. Truth be told, Chris Bosh's foul and ankle troubles did plenty to diminish his impact, though he hadn't exactly been setting the court ablaze before those issues arose. As for Chris Andersen—who had no points, no shots, two rebounds and four fouls in 19 minutes on Tuesday night—the Birdman must've flown the coup before tipoff.
If those two can contribute in Game 5 to the extent that they can and have in previous games, then Miami should be able to mitigate Indy's interior dominance. They'll have the bodies to make Hibbert and West work on both ends, to contest the Pacers' shots at the rim, and to better battle on the boards. No longer can the Heat afford to let the Pacers slip in for back-breaking offensive rebounds, as was so often the case during the fourth quarter of Game 4.
But even Miami's athletic bigs lack the sheer mass and reach to completely cancel out Indy's bulky giants.
Luckily for the Heat, they don't need to. The Heat defense has long been predicated not on size and strength, but rather on speed, length and creating an overwhelming sense of chaos and confusion. Against a team like Indy, it's imperative that Miami focus its defensive efforts on applying ball pressure on the perimeter, disrupting passing lanes and doubling down if/when the orange finds its way into the post.
Which is the Heat's biggest problem right now?
The Pacers have certainly proven themselves vulnerable to defensive pressure in the past. They were among the most turnover-prone teams in the league during the regular season and suffered through their fair share of mistakes in these playoffs coming into Game 4. Indy did well to limit itself to 12 giveaways in its last outing, though Miami still managed to score 21 points off of them. More Indy turnovers mean fewer Indy opportunities to crash the glass. (And, on the other end, more easy baskets for the fast-breaking Heat.)
That aside, Miami could clog the middle of the floor, and likely will at times as it has so far, though that approach comes with its fair share of perils. The Pacers shot uncharacteristically well against the Heat from beyond the arc during the regular season (39.4 percent on 22 attempts per game) and have carried that trend into the Eastern Conference Finals (37 percent on 13.5 attempts per game).
But that might be the price that Miami has to pay on the defensive end. The Heat held the Pacers to 3-of-14 shooting from three in Game 4, albeit while suffering through the aforementioned pounding in the paint.
Furthermore, it's a risk Miami should take going forward. Indy ranked 15th in three-point attempts and 22nd in percentage (.347) during the regular season, and hit just 30.8 percent of its treys through the first two rounds of these playoffs. Allowing the Pacers to launch from beyond the arc has its pitfalls (e.g. the shots going in), but doing so may well draw them away from their strength on the inside.
At this point, it's imperative that the Heat throw the Pacers out of their rhythm by any means necessary and regain control of the run of play in this series. Otherwise, Indy will continue to have its way in the paint and on the boards.
And the Heat, like the rest of us, will have to watch the Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs slog through the NBA Finals after a somewhat historic—but, ultimately, disappointing—2012-13 season.