Miami Heat Playing with Fire vs. Unpredictable Indiana Pacers

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Miami Heat Playing with Fire vs. Unpredictable Indiana Pacers
Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Under normal circumstances, the Miami Heat wouldn't need to be concerned about the Indiana Pacers' out-of-nowhere offensive explosion in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

But these aren't normal circumstances.

If they were, the Heat could count on Indiana's offense regressing to the mean over a larger sample size. If there were another 50 contests in this series, the Heat could comfortably expect Indy to play like the 22nd-ranked offense in the NBA, which it was during the 2013-14 regular season.

But that's not an option.

They could look at Indiana's 119.8 offensive rating in Game 1, a figure that would have been 10.4 points per 100 possessions better than the Los Angeles Clippers' league-best rating this past year, and shrugged it off as an anomaly.

But they can't.

Not when the Pacers need just three more wins to dispatch the two-time defending champs. And not when Indiana's up-and-down demeanor has made it impossible to predict which version of the team will show up in a given game.

There's no mean for Indiana to regress to because nothing it does anymore has a baseline. Average does not exist, and even if it did, the brevity of a seven-game series means counting on some kind of "average" emerging is a shaky proposition.

That means the Heat must adjust. They can't rely on the comforting notion of regression just happening. They must be the active force that brings it about.

 

A Crisis of Effort

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Some of Miami's issues are effort-based. Head coach Erik Spoelstra said as much after Indiana's surprising 107-96 win.

It would seem there's an easy fix for many of the issues Spoelstra mentioned: Try harder.

But you wonder about the ease of remedying a lapse in effort like the Heat showed in Game 1. Both of these teams should have been geeked up for a meeting they'd been planning (and talking about) all season long. Indiana held up its end of the bargain, coming out with and sustaining an intensity level that befit a matchup like this.

The Heat failed to do the same.

Miami has been waiting for this series all year—even if it hasn't been quite as vocal about it as the eager-to-prove-themselves Pacers. Where was the urgency? Where was the attention to detail Spoelstra rightly noted was missing?

Game 1 needs to function as a wake-up call for the Heat. And if that's all it takes for them to flip that switch we all talk about so often, fine.

But Miami had better flip it fast.

 

Working Smarter

What happened in Game 1 wasn't all about effort, though. The Heat will also have to make strategic tweaks.

Indiana relied heavily on a 1-4 pick-and-roll that gave Miami real issues—particularly when LeBron James had to check David West.

It's rash to suggest the Heat should abandon the small-ball approach with which they've had so much success against the hulking Pacers, but it seems clear James could use some help.

He said so himself, per Michael Wallace of ESPN:

"Obviously, it's a very physical front line," James said of the Pacers. "It's going to have to be a collective group. We all have to get down there and help one another out."

More broadly, the Pacers got to their preferred spots, knocked down open shots along with a few tough ones and soundly outexecuted Miami. That Indiana was able to generate such efficient offense was surprising enough on its own, but the fact it pulled off the trick against an opponent so intimately familiar with its limited playbook was positively stunning.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

It's not as though the Pacers have the insanely deep and varied arsenal of sets Tom Thibodeau employs with the Chicago Bulls. And they certainly don't boast the free-flowing, unpredictable system of a team like the San Antonio Spurs.

Indiana's offense is a basic thing, and Miami knows (or should know by now) everything the Pacers want to do.

The Heat simply must be smarter in sniffing out (and snuffing out) predictable actions.

Indiana will turn the ball over, and it will also take bad shots when Miami plays with enough force and intelligence to take good ones away.

 

Assistance Required

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

At the risk of belaboring a point everyone has driven home in the aftermath of Game 1, it might also be nice if someone besides James or Dwyane Wade could contribute. Chris Bosh's ongoing string of disappearances against the Pacers is particularly troubling.

He's supposed to be the guy whose length and shooting bothers Roy Hibbert, forcing him to leave the comfort of the lane. But Bosh has been awful against Indy for a while now, and it's fair to start wondering if he'll ever find his groove.

The rest of the rotation dropped the ball in Game 1 as well.

Ray Allen and Chris Andersen combined for 26 efficient points off the bench, but starters Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers both laid eggs. And as for those hidden gems Miami signed this season, don't expect much in the way of assistance from them.

Greg Oden spent Game 1 on the inactive list, and it's not clear Spoelstra knows Michael Beasley is still on the team.

The Heat have made a habit of dusting off little-used members of their bench for key playoff series (see: Miller, Mike and Haslem, Udonis) in the past. They'd better do the same against Indiana—and quick.

 

A Fine Line

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Ultimately, Miami's problems are fixable.

The Heat have been a markedly better team than the Pacers since sometime in January, and they should be confident in their ability to make Game 1 look like the outlier it was.

But Miami can't simply depend on going through the motions to get the job done. Success and complacency have been a part of the Heat's makeup since this version of the team came together in 2010, so we can't ever claim surprise when the Heat coast like they did against Indiana.

It's important for the Heat to trust in their talent and experience. In some sense, the advice here is really something along the lines of "stay the course." But there's a fine line between that approach and a more dangerous one—the one in which Miami slips into a passive belief that things will work out because they always have over the past three years.

The Pacers have been highly unpredictable in these playoffs, subject to emotional swings and a manic output from game to game. So as tempting as it might be for Miami to bank on a major dud from Indiana in Game 2, who's to say the Pacers won't use the momentum of their series-opening win to put forth a similarly inspired effort again?

Will the Heat recover to win the series?

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If nothing else, we know the Pacers have the market cornered on surprise. And another huge offensive game would certainly count as a surprise.

The Heat are better than the Pacers. They're more balanced, more experienced and still have the best player in the series on their team. Those things count for a lot.

But sitting back and trusting the effort will magically appear would be folly. As would approaching Game 2 without a few lineup tweaks and strategic alterations.

The Heat will probably still win this series. But now they know it's going to take some work.

 

Advanced stats courtesy of NBA.com.

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