After all the graceless falls and roller-coaster turns, the Indiana Pacers—somehow and so often in spite of themselves—wound up right where we all first figured: squaring off against the hated Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
To see the Pacers as walking wounded almost cheapens the weirdness of their journey: from genuine contenders-in-waiting to conference afterthoughts and back again in the course of three short months.
Watching Indiana climb and crawl its way back to relevance, you’d be forgiven for seeing in its playoff march a single, simple strategy: though scarred and often stagnant, survive, survive, survive.
They’ll need a better blueprint than that—a borderline brilliant one, even—to beat the Heat.
If you’re looking for a microcosm of Indiana’s schizophrenic season, look no further than its 7’2” All-Star center, Roy Hibbert, whose sporadic play became the bane of the Pacers’ plight and very nearly got the All-Star center benched during the postseason’s first round.
Still, as Matt Dollinger notes in this recent Sports Illustrated roundtable, Hibbert’s resurgence—while by no means a completed project—represents the touchstone of Indy’s own roundball renaissance:
Fast-forward to this postseason which, needless to say, has been far less triumphant for Indiana’s starting center. He had three goose eggs in four games. His confidence issues became a national topic of discussion. And he became a 7-foot-2 anchor dragging down the Pacers. But the All-Star big man started to regain his 2013 postseason form against the Wizards. In Indy’s last four wins, Hibbert is averaging 17.5 points and 7.5 rebounds. If Hibbert can complete his revitalization in the East finals, the Pacers could prevail in this much-anticipated rematch. Home-court advantage and a game-changing center can go a long way.
In the Pacers’ seven-game conference finals loss to the Heat last season, Hibbert averaged 22.1 points and 10.4 rebounds on 56 percent shooting.
In so doing, he proved Indy’s strategic template—namely, situating the league’s most fundamentally sound defensive center in the paint, where LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Co. would have to contend with Hibbert’s uncanny verticality—to be a potential power-shifter.
Over seven games, only two Pacers registered a positive plus-minus, according to NBA.com (subscription required): Hibbert (plus-1.0) and Lance Stephenson (plus-1.7). Concurrently, Hibbert was one of only three to chart a positive net rating (0.9), with George Hill (1.7) and Stephenson (2.4) being the other two.
But Hibbert’s impact was about much more than mere defensive disruptiveness, as evidenced by Indiana logging its second-highest offensive rating (105.4) and team true-shooting percentage (62 percent) with Hibbert on the floor.
In that series, head coach Frank Vogel utilized only four lineups for more than 10 minutes. Two of them finished with overall net ratings of minus-25.6 and minus-38.1, respectively, while the other wound up a wash.
Indiana’s starting five—with Hibbert manning the middle and mauling Miami’s undersized frontcourt—has proven one of the league’s most potent, productive starting units, and one proven capable of giving the Heat hell.
However, it’s how the other Pacers play that could prove a much bigger bellwether.
According to HoopsStats.com, Indiana’s bench is 28th in the league (regular season and playoffs combined) in overall scoring at 25.6 points per game, marking an improvement of just 1.5 points over its 2012-13 output.
The additions of Luis Scola, Chris Copeland, C.J. Watson and, later, Andrew Bynum were supposed to help bolster this cause. Instead, Indy has found itself precisely where it was last postseason: relying far too heavily on its run-ragged starting five.
The good news: The Pacers reserves outscored their Miami counterparts in three of the teams' four meetings.
Luckily, the Heat’s backups haven’t been world-beaters, either, finishing 20th in the NBA in scoring at 29.8 points per game.
For Indiana to make this a series, its bench must be able to weather whatever storms arise with Paul George and Co. riding the pine—playoff rest notwithstanding.
One possible strategy would be to feature Luis Scola in stretches, giving the versatile Argentine forward an opportunity to pump-fake and snake his way to easy buckets and, more importantly, put part of Miami’s paper-thin front line in foul trouble.
That would give Indy the added advantage of being able to feature Hibbert more in the low post.
Ancillaries aside, what this series really comes down to is positional matchups, two of which could well dictate and determine the momentum of the series.
Giving Wade the Lance
It’s safe to say Dwyane Wade has everything Lance Stephenson wants: All-Star status, a career studded with spectacular feats and superlative stylings, and a trio of rings to boot.
In terms of career trajectories, Wade and Stephenson occupy two very different coordinates.
Which is why it came as no surprise when, after being asked how he was looking to approach his prime-time matchup, Stephenson resorted to what could most politely be described as strategic psychological measures:
Lance Stephenson: "D-Wade I think his knee is kind of messed up so I got to be extra aggressive & make him run…make his knee flare up."— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) May 17, 2014
More Lance on D Wade: "...Tell coach to run ‘floppy,’ make him running around, make his knee flare up or something."— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) May 17, 2014
Understandable, given Stephenson’s productive playoff deficit opposite Wade:
And while Born Ready has been the picture of efficiency in his four games against the Heat this season, he and his cohorts have had an ever tougher time corralling D-Wade.
It’s going to take more than sour media swipes to render Wade an on-court afterthought. Indeed, for all his regular-season struggles, Wade’s impact has long been more about getting right at the right time—something he’s thus far accomplished.
Besides, it’s obvious in whose favor the two’s psychological battle has lately unfolded.
If Stephenson can successfully stymie Wade’s lane-probing prowess while keeping his own historically fragile temper on a somewhat even keel, that leaves it to LeBron James (and to a slightly lesser extent, Chris Bosh) to carry Miami’s scoring load—no small task, against a suddenly rejuvenated Indy D.
Sprinkle in a slew of momentum-swinging dunks, timely threes and highlight-reel feeds, and Stephenson stands to have these conference finals be the next in a growing semblance of signs pointing to a potential perennial All-Star in the making.
By George, Indy Wins
All told, George’s performance in last year’s conference finals—19.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.1 assists on 48 percent shooting (including 44 percent from distance)—was nothing short of solid.
Unfortunately, when your focus falls on the best basketball player in the solar system, “solid” merely means the difference between four-game sweeps and seven-game heartbreaks.
Put bluntly: For the Pacers to finally exorcise their Big Three demons, George has to be if not the best player on the floor, then at least great enough for fans and NBA denizens to do a double-take.
As this NBA.com shot chart and attendant analysis from CBS Sports’ Zach Harper illustrates, holding LBJ in check will require George do much more than merely match the stat sheet:
He made 20 shots just around the rim and did so at a 69-percent clip. That's remarkable against a team that possesses Roy Hibbert standing in front of the rim and David West clogging up the lane. The Pacers set their defense up to funnel guys to Hibbert, who is protecting the basket, and yet James has found a loophole with quick positioning and getting out and running.
George can counteract this in a couple of ways. First, he has to run with James. You can't let LeBron leak out at the first sign of a turnover or a long rebound. A big part of this will be anticipating what's next on offense and seeing the floor develop. And if you can hustle down the floor, you can start fighting for position.
In short, George—and the rest of the Pacers, for that matter—must make Miami work for each and every bucket, lest the Heat wreak havoc by way of their trademark transition terror.
Like Hibbert, George has borne witness to something of a humbling season: from early MVP hopeful to sordid struggles and, by way of intermittent postseason brilliance, back again.
More importantly for Indy's immediate prospects, George seems secure in an underrated aspect of the superstar psyche—a bit of denial, perhaps, but in the full service of maintaining the shortest memory possible:
Should the Pacers pull off the improbable and send the champs to an early country club tee time, it would certainly go down as one of the most unlikely about-faces in NBA postseason history.
And maybe that, silly though it may sound, is precisely the point: to join the battle emboldened by knowing that the enemy, like everyone else in the basketball universe, has no idea what to expect from you.
All cited NBA.com media stats are subscription-only. Stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of May 17, unless otherwise noted.