Heat escaped with a win, but Game 1 revealed reigning champs' weaknesses
The Pacers have a knack for playing the Heat competitively, and in Game 1 they played the champs about as closely as possible. If not for an improbable drive by LeBron James on the game's final possession, Indiana would have executed a clever theft of home-court advantage in the series' opening act -- an achievement still unlikely to make the Pacers favorites, but significant in dictating the course of the Eastern Conference finals. Instead, Frank Vogel's decision to sit Roy Hibbert on that final, fateful possession has devoured most all other reflection on the game itself, and in the process obscured all that went wrong for the Heat in Game 1. This particular near-loss may not have turned the series against Miami, but it did spotlight several problematic factors worth considering.
Due to shaky ball handling and a more generally plodding pace, Indiana's offense hinges heavily on its clean-up. Only three other teams in the league this season relied on second-chance points for a greater percentage of their overall scoring, and in Game 1 those extra opportunities accounted for roughly a quarter of the Pacers' offense. Hibbert alone grabbed seven offensive boards in his 41 minutes of action, and on the whole, Indiana's active, outsized frontcourt collected a rebound on almost half (44 percent) of its own misses. That influx of possessions didn't just put Indiana in a position to win with 2.2 seconds remaining in overtime, but also served to avoid a runaway loss. Many of the Pacers' put-backs came in the midst of furious Heat rallies, in effect stunting the momentum of a run in a way that little else could. With that, Indiana's second-chance buckets fulfilled a function more crucial than scoring -- particularly against a Miami team that's so dangerous going downhill.
Both the specific rebounding numbers and Miami's effort level on the glass will fluctuate throughout the series, but this particular weakness is fundamental to the matchup. In addition to the blatant size disadvantage that the Heat surrender, their defensive system is predicated on such frequent scrambling that boxing out every potential rebounding threat can prove problematic. In this particular series, that fault is magnified by a group of massive (Hibbert), strong (David West) and active (Tyler Hansbrough, Ian Mahinmi) opposing bigs. This is simply the advantage that the Pacers hold over the best team in the NBA, though it might be less substantial were Chris Bosh (who finished with just two rebounds) to play a more active role on the defensive end.
Also, it need be noted that Miami's struggles on the defensive glass can't be generalized to rebounding in total, as the Heat grabbed 38 percent of their misses and nearly matched the Pacers in second-chance points. That's easy to overlook given the general tilt of this series' narrative, but Miami could put itself in a position to finish this series quickly if it can play the offensive boards to a virtual wash in subsequent games.
Indiana's defense excels in imposing limitations, and can prove particularly strict in inhibiting three-point attempts. This is just one of the many benefits that Hibbert's presence on the backline provides. By virtue of having a tall, long-armed deterrent hovering in between the ball and the basket, Indiana's perimeter defenders are afforded a chance to challenge ball handlers and remain glued to potentially dangerous shooters. As a result, only the Bulls held opponents to fewer three-point attempts per game in the regular season.
We have every reason to think that Indiana will curtail Miami's three-point attempts in this series, as the Heat shot 6.4 fewer threes per game against the Pacers this season than they did on average. But in those regular-season meetings, Miami's shooters made up for their lack of volume by maximizing the value of select opportunities. That wasn't at all the case in Game 1, when Shane Battier and Ray Allen combined to go 1-for-8 from beyond the arc, providing the dead weight behind Miami's 27.8 percent three-point shooting. There were some desperation shots that superficially deflated the Heat's long-range accuracy, but overall this is a far lower mark than any that Miami posted against Indiana in the regular season. A world of credit goes to the Pacers for preempting most every swing pass and rotating accordingly, but one has to think that the Heat's best shooters will at some point knock down looks like these:
Miami will likely have to make do with fewer of those juicy corner threes going forward, but that doesn't mean quality shots can't be found for Allen and Battier throughout this series. They simply have to convert just a few of the attempts they missed in Game 1, and the histories of both shooters suggest they inevitably will.
Miami's defensive philosophy is rooted in pressuring the ball, often to the point that decent shots can be found across the floor if the opposing offense is composed and diligent enough to find them. For the most part, this doesn't apply to the Pacers; George Hill looked flummoxed throughout Game 1, and was visibly antsy while dealing with Miami's pursuit. On one occasion, he lost control of his dribble after simply catching sight of LeBron James in his peripheral vision -- a should-have-been turnover (saved by Hibbert) that would have been Hill's fourth:
Yet Indiana was able to score some essential points out of high pick-and-rolls, primarily because the Heat applied a bit too much pressure on the ball handler. Hill and D.J. Augustin didn't fare well overall, but they were able to find their outlets on a few choice occasions, which created some badly needed offense:
The Heat will likely tighten the screws, but their order of coverage won't soon change. This particular system is simply too good a fit with the quickness and athleticism across Miami's roster, no matter how perilous it might be. It forces live-ball turnovers and quick, fast-break-fueling shot attempts, and for those reasons the Heat will largely hold course. But there will be opportunities for the Pacers to capitalize with these kinds of shots, and how well -- and consistently -- they do so could in part determine the length of this series. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.