In this hotly contested Eastern Conference Finals, the Miami Heat have finally pushed the Indiana Pacers to the brink.
Not only did Miami take control of the series with their 90-79 Game 5 win, they raised legitimate questions about the Pacers' ability to respond again.
Indy's frontcourt has been giving all it has. Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert scored 66 of their team's 79 points as the Pacer guards and second unit failed to get going against Miami. Outside of those three, Indy shot just five-of-20 from the field.
It will take more than that to beat the Heat, especially when LeBron James is on a warpath the way he was in the third quarter of Game 5. LeBron outscored the entire Pacers team 16-13 in that quarter, helping turn Miami's four-point halftime deficit into an insurmountable 13-point lead.
Only three guys showed up in Game 5, and now the Pacers must bounce back against a Heat squad that keeps finding ways to cover the ineffectiveness of Wade and Bosh. Do they have what it takes to fix their flaws and send this series back to Miami for Game 7, or is it all going to end in Indy?
We'll have our answer in Game 6.
Time: Saturday, June 1, 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, IN
Series: Heat 3-2
Game 6 Key Storyline: Backcourt Scoring
The Heat backcourt was slightly off in Game 5, but the Pacer guards were downright atrocious.
George Hill and Lance Stephenson each missed long stretches due to foul trouble—Stephenson in the first, Hill in the third—and neither was able to get anything going for Indiana.
Though he did come up with three steals, Hill scored just one point and offset his four assists with three turnovers. Stephenson scored four points in 28 minutes of play before fouling out of the game. To add to the futility, D.J. Augustin was scoreless coming off the bench to rest the floundering starters.
That type of performance won't be acceptable in Game 6. While the talented fowards have given Indy consistent production throughout the series, the guards have swung games one way or another.
In both of Indy's wins, Hill and Stephenson combined to outscore Miami's starting backcourt. They put up 28 as Wade and Chalmers managed just 20 in Game 2, while and they beat the Heat guards 39-36 with a more efficient shooting performance.
On the other hand, Miami won out in Game 5 despite Wade being a virtual nonfactor. Chalmers' 12 carried the Heat guards in that contest. Wade chipped in just seven of his own.
Wade was fortunate his letdown came while Indy's backcourt was imploding. He needed no such luck in Games 1 and 3, as he and Chalmers took advantage of the Pacers' inconsistent guards to pull out two Heat victories.
In this Eastern Finals, the game has gone to the better backcourt. Both teams will want more out of their respective units in Game 6. This will be the sleeper matchup to watch.
Series Star So Far: LeBron James
What, you were expecting Ian Mahinmi?
LeBron James is the only answer here. He was just on another level in Game 5.
The pick-and-roll precision and post effectiveness are unstoppable on their own, but once he starts pulling up and nailing three-pointers at will, it's over. There wasn't much point playing out the game after James' third-quarter onslaught. The Pacers' body language seemed to agree.
That brilliant performance lifts his series stat line to 28.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game—and he'd be dishing out more assists if his star teammates weren't missing in action.
At this point in the series, the Big Three has become the Big One, Wade and Bosh. Wade's bruised knee has sapped him of enough explosiveness to make him ordinary right now, while Bosh is too weak to battle with Hibbert inside and has been reduced to spot-up shooting only.
As LeBron said in his postgame press conference, "I kind of just went back to my Cleveland days" in Game 5. His improved supporting cast was supposed to unburden him from that 1-on-5 approach, but James still has it in reserve when he needs to break it out.
Somehow, some way, Paul George needs to get a handle on James in Game 6. It might not even be possible, but the Pacers can't survive that extraordinary play.
Projected Starting Lineups for Game 6:
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
Heat Will Win If...
They can get the Pacers frontcourt in foul trouble.
If either Paul George or Roy Hibbert have to sit for extended minutes, this game is going to get out of hand very quickly.
Without George on the floor, LeBron would feast on Stephenson, Sam Young and whatever other misfit toys Frank Vogel throws at him. Considering how well he is playing already, it's scary what James might do if Indy is deprived of its shutdown wing.
On the other hand, we have already seen what LeBron can do when Hibbert is sitting.
The problem isn't just defensive, though. Indiana's best defenders have also been its three leading scorers this postseason, both in terms of reliability and output. Miami locks down the perimeter without Hibbert or West on the floor, while Indy is without an effective off-the-bounce scorer when George is sidelined.
Attack those three guys, and the game gets that much easier for Miami.
Pacers Will Win If...
They distribute the scoring evenly.
It can't just be the frontcourt carrying the load against Miami. The Heat defense is too willing to send help for the Pacers to localize their scoring; if the big men are scoring and the perimeter guys aren't, Miami will be more than happy to swarm the middle and force turnovers.
Indiana doesn't need Hill or Stephenson to go off in Game 6; it needs both of them to do enough to at least get Miami's attention. Any weak link in the Pacers' offense just gives the Heat another free opportunity to double, which leads to transition points and big leads for Miami.
There's also the matter of Indy's borderline useless bench.
It has been the Pacers' biggest flaw throughout the season, but someone on the second unit has to step up and produce. Indy is hard to beat when its bench players are able to put up points, but it's very easy for a team like Miami when it can largely ignore the backups.
The Pacers are clearly the underdogs here, but their two wins so far weren't steals. They won them fair and square with defensive intensity and offensive balance. Unless they have both in Game 6, this series won't be going back to South Beach.
Desperate and with the home crowd behind them, the Indiana Pacers are going to keep fighting until the final buzzer, but the Miami Heat are firmly in control.
Who win win Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals?
This is a big, strong and prideful Pacers squad that truly believes it can push the mighty Heat around, but after Game 5 the Heat believe they can push the Pacers right back.
Count on a close game as Hill and Stephenson contribute more beyond the arc to clear up the middle for Hibbert and West. Expect Wade and Bosh to be safely back in double-digits in scoring, making this the type of high-scoring affair Miami is better-equipped for than Indy.
The Pacers' saving grace is Paul George, who could keep this series alive if he can figure out how to contain LeBron James. No one has done so before him and he's as capable as anyone to do it, but James is just too much for anyone on the planet right now.
This has been the best series of the postseason without a single doubt. It's a shame such great basketball must stop, but it's finally time for the Eastern Conference Finals to end.
Heat 96, Pacers 92