Indiana Pacers Must Rediscover Signature Defense to Get Back in Series

Jim CavanContributor IMay 25, 2014

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It's something of a common rhetorical crutch to talk about NBA basketball—the playoffs especially—as a sequence of high-stakes chess matches.

For the Indiana Pacers, checkmate in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals came with the strangest of sites: David West trying, and failing, to chase Ray Allen around the perimeter.

Allen's 16 points off the bench helped fuel an incendiary second half for the Miami Heat, who coasted to a 99-87 win and a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

The NBA's all-time leading three-point shooter—picture-perfect form in full—canned a quartet of fourth-quarter threes, most of them off of miscommunications by Indy's typically taut defense, which failed to adjust to the Heat's small-ball lineup down the stretch.

Whether Miami's gambit amounts to sound strategy or sample-size luck hardly matters in light of the bigger question: Are the Pacers flexible enough, or even good enough, to adjust?

On a night when their offense was a notch above stagnant, the Pacers surrendered a surreal 60 percent shooting in the second half, conceding a slew of wide-open looks to a three-guard Miami attack featuring Allen, Dwyane Wade and Norris Cole.

Meanwhile, Indiana failed to capitalize on its significant size advantage, attempting just four shots in the paint over the final frame.

To say the Pacers were blindsided by Miami's crunch-time lineup would be an understatement: After logging just one minute in the series' previous two games, the unit of Cole, Allen, Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh registered a staggering offensive efficiency of 178.6 over eight fourth-quarter minutes, finishing with a net rating of 93, per (subscription required).

The result: the meeting of a benchmark four seasons in the making:

Maybe the Pacers know this and maybe they don't. The first order of research lies in believing, as head coach Frank Vogel does, that the battle has just begun:

Indiana's status as the league's top defense isn't surprising. What is surprising, however, is that they've managed to secure that status wielding one of the least malleable rotations in the league.

Consider: In four regular-season games with Miami, only three Pacers units logged more than five minutes of floor time. The Heat, by contrast, boast nine such lineups.

And while Indy managed to split the season series, the inherent flexibility of the Heat roster is beginning to expose the inherent flaw of Indiana's makeup: a starting-five unrivaled in its ability to dictate pace, tempo and tenor…until they can't.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

During the regular season, the Pacers fielded a mere eight lineups for 50 minutes or more. Of those, the most successful—both in terms of defensive rating and overall net rating—was the unit of C.J. Watson, Paul George, Lance Stephenson, Luis Scola and Roy Hibbert.

How that unit would fair against another bout of Miami small-ball, it's hard to say. Even mysterious is what adjustments—beyond the above-mentioned lineup tweaks—Indiana can make against a team that's once again seemed to flip the springtime switch.

Unless it's as simple as Paul George seems to think it is:

For those who'd argue that these conference finals amount to a war of wills—that Indy need not think beyond reasserting its burly will—Bleacher Report's Ian Levy offers a word of caution:

Stubbornly pounding the ball in the post can make their offense even more simplistic and predictable, which plays right into Miami's hands.

The other option, something the Pacers have been reasonably committed to, is attacking favorable matchups with isolations. When Miami plays small, this often means letting West work in either the low or high post against Shane Battier or Bosh. Stephenson has also done some good post-up work against Wade, and the Pacers need to be on the lookout for these sorts of opportunities.

But none of these things are an offensive silver bullet, and if the Heat continue to execute with energy on defense, things aren't going to get easier, no matter what the Pacers do.

Indiana's starting five didn't finish as one of the NBA's most productive for no reason. As such, it seems unlikely that Vogel will defer to some seldom-used unit down the stretch, no matter how theoretically proficient.

Perhaps, then, the adjustment that's needed—assuming Miami defers again to its three-guard attack—is of the fine-tuning, rather than the script-flipping, variety.

Whatever the on-the-fly fix, the Pacers face a challenge almost as stiff as the Heat: history.

Indiana is, in many ways, built to beat these Heat. Length and strength, brain and brawn, chemistry and camaraderie (however fleeting), the Pacers—punctuated by a punishing D—are purpose built to exact from the champs the most torturous toll possible.

But until that toll translates to wins when they matter most, the Pacers' fate is doomed to echo that of a would-be chess champion: all the tools and moves to start the fight, not nearly enough to finish it.


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