It turns out the Indiana Pacers' second-half swoon during the regular season—fraught with ill-defined concerns like chemistry, motivation and trust—obscured the real reason Paul George and Co. can't compete with the Miami Heat right now.
Maybe those fuzzy issues that contributed to the Pacers' late-season nosedive still matter, but one thing has become abundantly clear in an Eastern Conference Finals rapidly swinging in Miami's favor, and it's mind-numbingly simple.
Indiana doesn't have the weapons to fight the Heat on equal terms. Its overall talent, while considerable, isn't as great as Miami's.
We saw a pointed example of that fact in the fourth quarter of Game 3 on Saturday.
Wonky matchup decisions by Indiana, made out of necessity, allowed the Heat to get loads of good looks on offense and create their signature brand of chaos on defense. David West checked Ray Allen for a long and unsuccessful stretch during that decisive final period, and the league's all-time greatest three-point shooter hit four triples to salt away a Miami win.
That's a matchup the Pacers have gone to before when Miami has slotted LeBron James at the 4—the thinking being that putting West on LeBron James is inviting a quick death. But Allen and his sweet release killed Indiana in Game 3 just the same.
And when you think about it, of course he did. West can't stay with a guy who runs around 14 screens in his sleep and fades to the corners at just the right moment as easily as breathing. The terrifying thing: The Pacers might not have any better options.
Is C.J. Watson going to save the day? Probably not.
Pacers just didn't have enough ball-handling with Watson/Butler on floor. Crazy Turner can't get Butler's minutes.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) May 25, 2014
And as for Rasual Butler, well...let's just say he's not the guy the Pacers want to deploy in a dire situation.
"Hello, Basketball Emergency Hotline? Yes, I'd like to request some assistance. The Heat are killing us and we're thinking Rasual Butler can help. Wait, why are you laughing? This is very unprofessional."
*Click*... dial tone.
Perhaps Indiana could experiment with West on Dwyane Wade. At least then the Pacers could be secure in the knowledge that they wouldn't get burned so easily from long distance. Despite Wade's confidence (and his 4-of-10 performance from three in these playoffs), the record doesn't indicate he'll bury the Pacers from beyond the arc.
Says the man who ranks 312th in 3P% among 315 players w/ 1k 3PA. MT @EthanJSkolnick: Wade: "I can shoot the 3-ball. I just decide not to."— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) May 25, 2014
But if you step back and consider the utter insanity of putting a power forward with limited mobility on one of the greatest cutters and finishers to ever play the shooting guard position, it should give you some pause.
There are lots of ways to lose a basketball game, and putting West on Wade is probably as good as any.
Short on Skill and Strategy
All this points to a broader issue with Indiana's talent—which is to say, it simply doesn't have enough.
Its bench is awful, and that's been the case for most of the past two seasons. In fact, if not for the Pacers' lead-surrendering reserves, this might be an entirely different series.
Beyond a lack of capable subs, Indiana's other obvious shortcoming is its inability to score. We saw it all year, as Indy ranked 22nd in the league in offensive efficiency, per NBA.com. In Game 1, the Pacers somehow found enough offensive flow to pile up a gaudy (for them) 107 points.
When Indy doesn't post an anomalous offensive performance like that, it can't compete with Miami.
Dating back to the start of the 2010-11 season (the Big 3 Era), Miami is a perfect 13-0 vs. Indiana when they score at least 97 points.— Tommy Beer (@TommyBeer) May 25, 2014
Of course, there's strategy at play here as well. It's not all a dearth of overall talent that's contributing to Indiana's struggles.
Miami is just better at capitalizing on Indiana's weak links. It basically ignores Butler on the offensive end, and it dares Watson to penetrate because it knows he won't finish or make the right decision in traffic most of the time.
In contrast, Miami gets away with playing extremely limited players because Indiana doesn't exploit them. Rashard Lewis, of all people, played 17 minutes in Game 3. He defended surprisingly well, but didn't make a field goal in two attempts.
If you're the Pacers, don't you want to find out if Lewis, who shot 41.5 percent on the season, can beat you? The guy used to be a dead-eye shooter from distance, but he's not the same player anymore.
Maybe Indiana should just ignore him on offense and hope for the best.
The Pacers need to make Rashard Lewis make a shot.— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) May 25, 2014
Then again, maybe there's something unusual about Indiana's elite base defense. Perhaps it's so fundamentally sound and dedicated to precise rotations and help schemes that cheating off of a weak offensive link just doesn't come naturally.
It's odd to consider the idea that a defense is too good and too principled to cheat, but that could be an explanation for what we're seeing from Indiana in this series.
The Pacers have flirted with leaving Wade open on the perimeter, but why not go for broke and dare him to fire away from long distance? It could work, and if the Pacers are going to give West as much help in guarding Allen as they probably should, leaving Wade is a decent way to do that.
Look, this is all really just a shorthand way of saying Miami has more good players than the Pacers do, and it tends to recognize and exploit advantages more effectively. Put even more simply: The Heat are just better.
If Indy wants to improve its chances of survival in the future, maybe it'll implement some big changes. We could see West taken off the floor completely down the stretch. Or perhaps we'll see the Pacers dare Wade—and not Allen—to beat them from the perimeter.
But Indiana is just so limited in its options and personnel that there might not be any one adjustment that'll change this series. And even if the Pacers make a tweak to their matchups, Miami has the versatility to counter.
Talent All Along
It's ironic, really. Right now, Indiana isn't suffering from any of the afflictions we noticed during its troubling regular-season slide. Based on how things went during the year, we could have expected infighting, slumped shoulders or a pervasive lack of trust in teammates to be Indiana's undoing against the defending champs.
Unfortunately for the Pacers, that stuff was never the real problem in the first place.
It was talent all along, and the lack of it (compared to the Heat) will be the Pacers' undoing.