Well, here we are again. The long road to the conference finals has brought us the two teams we thought we would see anywhere. It was not easy for the Pacers, that is for sure, but they got everything they wanted. Home court against the Heat in the conference finals.
Last year’s seven-game classic seems forever ago. Both these teams are incredibly different from then. The Heat’s bench has thinned out. The Pacers’ have lost themselves it seemed. But here they are.
This series will be interesting though. It is a series. And the Pacers got here somehow. At this point in the Playoffs, everyone is good and everyone has to have a chance to win.
What will be the keys to victory? Let’s take a stab:
1. Roy Hibbert
Just Roy Hibbert. Nothing else may matter for the Pacers.
When he is good, the Pacers are as dominant as they always have been. When he is not, they look like an 8-seed. Maybe not even that.
Hibbert has been a key to everything wrong with the Pacers and he is the key to this series against the Heat. His rim protection is something Miami cannot match and he is going to force Miami to go big — particularly with David West next to him. The Heat want to play small and get up and down the floor, but that gets tougher against an effective bigger lineup.
This postseason, the Pacers have a +0.2 net offensive rating with Hibbert on the floor. They are +4.9 points per 100 possessions with Hibbert off the floor. The Pacers are only better with Evan Turner off the floor. That does not quite compute, does it?
The Pacers though are much better defensively with Hibbert on the floor — 96.2 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Hibbert, himself, has been better in wins — 11.9 points per game and 5.8 rebounds per game — than in losses — 3.2 points per game and 2.4 rebounds per game. Last season in the series against the Heat, Hibbert averaged 22.1 points per game and 10.4 rebounds per game. It might not take that kind of an effort this time around, but the Pacers will need a lot more from Hibbert than they have gotten.
The Heat did a hell of a job managing Dwyane Wade’s cumbersome knee this season. Wade missed 28 games this season and the Heat purposefully held out of back-to-backs. His 19.0 points per game were his lowest since his rookie season. This has become the reality of Dwyane Wade: he is not the player he once was.
Lance Stephenson has already joked(?) that his goal is to make Wade’s knee act up again. No matter the preparations the Heat have made all season, one flare up at the wrong time or one tweak at the wrong time, could derail everything.
This is not so much about Wade though, this is about how much help he can provide LeBron James. James has been nothing but superb this postseason, averaging 30.0 points per game, 7.1 rebounds per game and 4.7 assists per game. He has had to carry a heavy burden all season, putting up his highest scoring average since coming to Miami.
James has had to be more and do more, which is plenty of reason to believe this Heat team is not as good as last year.
When it comes to the Pacers, pace has mattered.
In Indiana’s Playoff wins, the Pacers have played at a pace of 90.91 possessions per game. In losses, they were at 94.94 possessions per game. That is not a huge difference, but it is enough to affect the outcomes of games. When teams can speed the Pacers up, they are not able to control things defensively like they might have been able to back in the day of December.
The Heat are a team that likes to push the pace and so the pace will matter this series. But that does not guarantee victory.
In the Playoffs, Miami is playing at a pace of 88.2 possessions per game. So this is a team capable of playing at a slower pace too. That is what makes Miami so dangerous. But if the Heat are unable to pick up the pace and get out in transition, that could enable the Pacers to stay in the game.
4. The Benches
There is no denying that neither the Heat nor the Pacers bench is particularly the strongest.
Based on raw numbers alone, the Pacers bench is averaging 20.5 points per game while the Heat bench is averaging 26.6 points per game. The Heat will be starting Udonis Haslem this series to better match up with David West. Shane Battier might or might not play in this series.
Ray Allen is undoubtedly the best player off the bench for the Heat, but otherwise they are not getting much from the bench. Luis Scola has had some big games off the bench for the Pacers and Ian Mahimni has provided solid defense as well. The battle between these “other” players could be a big key to this series.
Last season, Paul George made his mark and announced himself in the Eastern Conference Finals. His mono-e-mono with LeBron James was legendary and created some awe-inspiring moments.
Lately, George has been good, but not superstar great. The Pacers need Paul George at superstar great to defeat the Heat.
He has had his moments. Game Seven against the Hawks was superb and he has stepped up when his team has needed him. His team needs him now. Paul George has to cement himself as a consistent superstar player if the Pacers are going to win this series.