INDIANAPOLIS -- Much was made of the post-up game by LeBron James in Miami's Game 3 win. By the count of the Pacers, however, James had 14 post-ups that generated 10 points and 1 assist -- numbers that weren't at all intimidating.
From the Pacers' point of view, trailing 2-1 as they do in the Eastern finals, they find themselves needing a win in Game 4 Tuesday because Udonis Haslem torched them by going 8-for-9 from the field in the previous game here. Haslem had been 1-for-7 in the series going into Game 3, and over the course of the season he was 17-of-49 from midrange (10 to 15 feet).
The two variables have created new headaches for Indiana as it tries to remain relevant in the series. "It's probably the most difficult offense to prepare for in the NBA today," said Indiana coach Frank Vogel. "That's a challenge we have ahead of us. I have great confidence in our ability to make up for the areas we were lacking."
The Pacers' top-rated defense was unable to prevent Miami from shooting 62.8 percent in the first half with one turnover (the most damning stat of all) while taking command of Game 3. They must find some way to clamp down on the Heat while also generating more production from Paul George, who was outscored 22-13 by James. And yet the NBA's Most Improved Player was by no means passive.
"I thought he was very aggressive," said Vogel of George, who finished with eight assists and five turnovers. "He didn't have a great shooting night (3-for-10) and they were more dialed-in to making him the focal point of their defensive plan. Thirteen points and eight assists is about 30 points worth of production -- similar to what LeBron put up, 22 points and three assists. So I thought it was a pretty even battle."
The emphasis for the Pacers will be to protect their homecourt by establishing the terms of Game 3 with their defense. Whether or not James (and Dwyane Wade, who also posted up more often than in the previous two games) was decisive in Game 3 with his back to the basket, they want to prevent Miami from pursuing its chosen agendas.
"We let Paul down," said Pacers power forward David West of their failure to show a second defender to James. "LeBron was getting four, five, six dribbles, and I don't think there's a guy in the NBA who you can guard if you give him that many dribbles. We don't double. We don't trap. We rely on guys to guard their man and send help late -- we just didn't do that for some reason."
James' post-up game was crucial to Miami's comeback in last year's conference semifinal. When the Pacers led 2-1 in the absence of Chris Bosh, James backed into the post to give his team a presence and prevent the Pacers from dominating physically. If James had the same skill set and confidence down low as he has today, then the Heat might have been able to salvage the 2010 NBA Finals against Dallas.
"They had Jason Terry guarding him a few times -- you know, we didn't put him in positions to make them [the Mavericks] pay," said Bosh of James in 2010. "But sometimes failure is the best medicine for you, to see what you need to improve on. He's taking everything very great as a player. He's worked on things he could really benefit this team with. Post play has been devastating for the opposing defense."
And yet James believes he's only beginning to grasp the possibilities. "I still have a lot of room to improve," he said. "A few things I can still get better with down there -- small counter?attacks, feeling the defense out a little bit more with my back towards the basket.
"It's pick your poison. If you're going to double me, I'll find my shooters; if you're going to play me one?on?one, I'm going to be aggressive and look for my shot. I'm an unselfish guy. If they try to come on the post and take the ball away from me, I'm going to look weak side -- try to find my shooters, try to find my bigs on the baseline. If not, I'm going to go to work."
By James' admission, the Heat have been at their best when faced with trouble. Now that they've regained homecourt advantage with a chance to take a 3-1 lead, will they build on the gains of Game 3? Or will their efficiency be diminished as the Pacers face a must-win game of their own?
"It's the adversity, the opponents' fans, that we love to just come in and try to take a game from a team on their home floor," said James. "We love it. We love feeling like it's just us by ourselves against everyone else."
That's how it's going to feel in Game 4.