The closing run by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Game 2 against the Indiana Pacers drew attention to the Miami Heat's much-discussed "extra gear," but it also highlighted the Pacers' problematic makeup.
We're not necessarily dealing with the somewhat overblown value of a true "closer" here, but there's something to be said for a clearly defined hierarchy that starts with a big-name star (or two) and allows every player on the roster to fall into their proper place at critical times.
James and Wade definitely put things in order for the Heat. They take the big shots, they distribute and everyone else forms up ranks behind them.
That kind of alignment is a tough thing to achieve for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the sheer rarity of legitimate stars who are willing to step up and absorb blame along with credit. At the same time, players behind those stars must be willing to fall in line, and that's even trickier to pull off.
Because every player on an NBA team spent the vast majority of their basketball lives being the most dominant force on whatever team they played for.
Take Norris Cole as an example. He won both the Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the Horizon League as a senior in college. He was a major part of his team's success on both ends at a relatively high level. And though he didn't enter the NBA with aspirations of stardom, he still had to adjust to the built-in pecking order in Miami.
Now, he's an effective role player who defends, defers and doesn't rock the boat.
Miami's fourth-quarter statistics from the regular season speak to the hierarchy that has led to so much success:
You can see James and Wade dominate most possessions, taking far more shots than any other frequently used player and doing so with excellent efficiency.
Game 2 was essentially an example of the trends we've seen from the Heat all year.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade scored or assisted on EVERY POINT @MiamiHEAT scored in the 4th quarter of Game 2.— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) May 21, 2014
Although, it was on the extreme side.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade ended up scoring or assisting on the Heat's final 33 points.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 21, 2014
The Pacers don't do things quite the same way on the court, and that might be because they don't have the kind of leadership structure the Heat can boast.
We know there have been rumors of discord during Indiana's second-half slide, with the fight between Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner standing out as the most high-profile example.
On the eve of this Eastern Conference series, the wobbling No. 1 seed punctuated its final playoff preparations in a most self-destructive way: Two Indiana Pacers dragged a cursing, cut Evan Turner out of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court, untangling him from a practice-floor fistfight with teammate Lance Stephenson.
Nobody's saying the Heat are free from the occasional disagreement. But Indiana has had issues all season.
Remember when Roy Hibbert flew off the handle after a 91-78 road loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in March? That screed produced the famous "selfish dudes" sound bite, but it also contained some interesting analysis by the big man, per David Aldridge of NBA.com:
We play hard, but we've got to move the ball. Is it obvious, or what? I don't know whatever our assist ratio, or whatever it is, is in the league, but it probably isn't up there. I'm really trying hard not to spaz out right now, but I don't know. We've been talking about it for a month. I'm not handling the rock. I don't know. I've made suggestions before and we do it for, like, one game, and then we revert back to what we are. I don't know.
Indiana's fourth-quarter numbers bear out some of what Hibbert was talking about.
Paul George seems to be the guy assuming a starring role, but he hit just 39.1 percent of his attempts in the fourth quarter this year, per NBA.com. And the strange disappearances of George Hill, David West and Hibbert are also notable.
Another way to analyze the above data is simpler: When Luis Scola is taking the second-most fourth-quarter shots on the roster, something should probably change.
It's hard to know how Indy should be apportioning its most critical shots, or how it should be assigning roles when things get tight down the stretch, but that's part of the problem. We've seen this team as it exists now for over two full seasons, and we don't have an answer.
The Heat endured a rough period in their early stages as James and Wade struggled to figure out who would assume the alpha role when it mattered. After a few hiccups, they figured things out.
And everyone else fell in line.
Maybe the Pacers just aren't that type of team. Defense comes first in Indiana, and we've been focusing solely on Miami's late-game offense in this discussion.
Perhaps the cohesion necessary to play the type of great defense the Pacers play has infused the roster with such an egalitarian approach that nobody is equipped to assert himself individually down the stretch.
George seems like the guy closest to taking on that role, but he's simply not very good at it. For all of his obvious two-way talent, he's still primarily a stopper who sometimes flashes a great offensive game. He's not, though, the kind of dominant scoring and facilitating force James and Wade are.
To be fair, you don't necessarily need a pecking order to win big.
The San Antonio Spurs are an extreme example of this. They function in a system that prizes giving shots to whichever player is in the best position to make them—no matter who that player is or when that shot materializes in the game.
For San Antonio, a first-quarter jumper by Tony Parker is the same as a fourth-quarter jumper by Patty Mills—as long as it's open and comes in the flow of the offense. Of course, it's wholly unfair to compare any team to the Spurs. They're unique in today's NBA and set a standard too high to use as any kind of measuring stick.
Indiana will never have the free-flowing, equal-opportunity offense the Spurs do. And unless George makes some kind of unprecedented offensive leap, it probably won't ever have the kind of raw star power the Heat have in James and Wade.
Maybe that means the Pacers have to carve out a third path.
Relying on stellar defense and hoping quality shots emerge as a result sounds dangerous. But Indiana wouldn't be the first team to fuel its scoring with great D.
And remember, many of James and Wade's critical closing buckets in Game 2 came as a result of Miami's patented trapping scheme. If the Pacers can find a way to blend some of their more conventional defensive principles with a few aggressive tactics, it's possible they could generate a few extra points when they need them most.
If that sounds like some kind of desperate, last-ditch approach to creating offense, that's because it is.
Indiana isn't built like the Heat. It doesn't have the kinds of unquestioned superstars that put everyone in an established order like Miami does. So the Pacers might as well play to their strengths.
They have success as a tied-together unit on defense, so it would seem logical for them to channel some of that cohesiveness into whatever offense they can.
It might not work. But if they want to survive against James, Wade and Miami's star-driven chain of command, the Pacers had better come up with something.