Deadlocked in a 2-2 tie, the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat are heading back to South Beach for Game 5 on Thursday. After Miami played a nearly perfect Game 3, it appeared that the plucky Pacers were finally going to succumb to the Heat team that ran roughshod over the NBA during the 2012-13 regular season.
But Indiana won Game 4 by a final score of 99-92. Size, hustle and phenomenal work on the boards quickly swung the fickle momentum of this series back in the Pacers' favor.
Now, the Heat will have to sort out a couple of critically problematic areas if they hope to regain the upper hand.
Of course, they do technically have an edge in that two of the series' final three games are slated to be played in Miami. But from what we've seen so far, home-court advantage hasn't counted for much. And regardless of where the games take place, if the Heat can't find a way to at least be competitive in the paint and on the glass against the bruising Pacers, Indiana could very well win this series.
That's the long view of things, anyway.
More immediately, the Heat will need more than six combined field-goal makes from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The duo, along with the rest of Miami's supporting cast, basically abandoned LeBron James in Game 4—a somewhat surprising disappearance after a solid effort in Game 3.
If the Heat reserves show up, knock down shots and help out on the glass, Miami can push Indiana to the brink by winning Game 5. But if the Pacers continue to dominate on the interior, the Heat could be in serious trouble.
Time: Thursday, May 30, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami, Fla.
Key Story Line: The Pacers' Offensive Explosion
Lost amid more obvious topics—Roy Hibbert's interior dominance, Dwyane Wade's generally poor play—is the fact that the Pacers are scoring the ball at a remarkable rate in this series.
After posting an offensive rating of 101.6 during the regular season, Indiana's scoring has improved dramatically against a pretty good Miami defense. In fact, the Pacers' offensive rating of 111.3 is not only better than what the Heat have done in these conference finals (110.9), but it's also better than what Miami's league-best offense did during the regular season (110.3).
Small-sample-size caveats abound, but it's flat-out astonishing that Indiana has suddenly found a way to turn one of its greatest weaknesses into a strength.
The improvement is a result of a number of contributing factors. Obviously, Indiana's size advantage is chief among them; when the Heat have to gear everything they do on defense toward denying Hibbert the ball and then doubling him when he gets it, driving lanes and three-point shots are going to be open.
The Pacers are doing a fantastic job of taking advantage of the opportunities the Hibbert mismatch creates. After hitting just under 35 percent of their three-point attempts during the regular season, they're hitting over 37 percent against the Heat. They're also attacking Miami's defense as it rotates to recover from its help positions against Hibbert.
Most importantly, though, the Pacers are creating more high-percentage opportunities for themselves by killing the Heat on the offensive boards (more on that later) and winning the free-throw battle.
The Pacers' defense deserves a lot of credit for making the Heat work, but over four games, Miami's offensive rating has been almost identical to the one it posted during the regular season. The Pacers aren't really stopping the Heat.
The real difference has been the Pacers' surprising offensive growth.
Series Star so Far: Roy Hibbert
Let's start with the numbers: 22.8 points, 12.0 rebounds, 54.1-percent shooting from the field and 80.6 percent from the line. Not bad, eh?
Hibbert pretty much nailed his conference-finals averages in Game 4, posting 23 points, 12 boards and hitting 10 of his 16 shots from the field. His work as a defensive eraser has rightfully earned him a ton of praise throughout these playoffs, but his ability to generate great scoring numbers has been a huge part of the reason the Pacers have played the Heat to a draw.
Miami really has no answer for him.
Hibbert has been getting plenty of catches deep in the paint, which generally leaves Miami's already overmatched defenders helpless to do anything but foul him. And in Game 4, he even snared a couple of pocket passes in the lane.
It's probably not a great idea to make Hibbert an offensive hub when he's on the move, but he actually did find David West open for a couple of jumpers on the baseline and found his way to the rim on more than one occasion. Perhaps we're watching a pick-and-roll weapon develop right before our eyes.
James has to be mentioned here, too. He has posted averages of 28.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 53.2-percent shooting. Those figures are nothing to sneeze at.
But Hibbert really has been the difference in this series, and his impact on both ends can't be overstated.
Projected Starting Lineups
Indiana Pacers: George Hill (PG), Lance Stephenson (SG), Paul George (SF), David West (PF), Roy Hibbert (C)
Miami Heat: Mario Chalmers (PG), Dwyane Wade (SG), LeBron James (SF), Udonis Haslem (PF), Chris Bosh (C)
Injury Report (Via CBS Sports)
No injuries reported.
No injuries reported.
Miami Will Win If...
It can create some turnovers.
The Pacers have been a sloppy offensive team all season long, and that hasn't really changed in the playoffs. Their turnover ratio of 15.1 percent is the worst of any playoff team to make the second round this year.
Outside of the 20 giveaways Miami forced in its overtime win in Game 1, the Pacers have been surprisingly careful with the basketball. If the Heat can get back to some of their ball-hawking ways, it would not only lead to a few more transition opportunities, but also might prevent the Pacers from involving Hibbert as much as they have.
Better ball pressure, quicker double-teams on the block and a more aggressive approach toward George Hill's shaky ball-handling could force the Pacers into some of their old, sloppy habits.
If we've learned anything from the first four games of this series, it's that the Pacers have the advantage in half-court sets on both ends. Miami needs to make the game a bit more chaotic if it wants to avoid Indiana's dug-in defense on one end and its highly successful post play on the other.
Of course, the problem with creating chaos on defense is that it will probably require the Heat to play a smaller, quicker lineup. And that could prove to be another problem against the hulking Pacers.
Indiana Will Win If...
Hibbert and West combine for nine offensive rebounds. How's that for specific?
The Pacers have grabbed a completely ridiculous 40 percent of their own missed shots. Think about that for a second: Isn't it a lot easier to score if you give yourself a second chance 40 percent of the time?
That's a totally unsustainable number, but we've seen enough in this series to know that West and Hibbert are getting to do pretty much whatever they want on the glass. In Game 4, they combined for 10 offensive boards. Chris Bosh is getting manhandled on nearly every possession and nobody else on the roster has come close to matching up with Indiana's bigs down low.
If Hibbert and West are allowed to carve out space underneath in Game 5, there'll be plenty more offensive boards and plenty more free-throw opportunities for the Pacers.
Miami could afford to lose most of its rebounding battles during the regular season because it was good enough in other areas to make up for that deficiency. But the Pacers are different.
Indiana is a great team, so if it gets a bunch of extra chances because of offensive rebounds, Miami's slight advantages elsewhere won't be enough to compensate.
Prediction: Miami Heat 104, Indiana Pacers 99
Who will win Game 5?
There are plenty of reasons to pick the Pacers in Game 5. They've figured out how to exploit Miami's lack of size down low, and the Heat simply aren't getting consistent production from anyone besides James.
But the chances of the Heat's bench pulling a second consecutive no-show seem remote.
Plus, Miami shot 39 percent from the field and got next to nothing from Wade and Bosh in Game 4, but still only lost by seven points. So this pick is basically a bet that at least one other member of the Big Three (which has become an increasingly inaccurate nickname) will bring something to the table.
Hibbert will almost certainly continue to dominate underneath, but if James buckles down and the Heat regroup, there's a good chance they'll take a critical Game 5.
*All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise indicated.