MAMBINO’s Eastern Conference Finals Preview

1) Miami Heat vs. 3) Indiana Pacers
 
Why do the Miami Heat take this in 5 games?
 
It was damn near impossible to find a consensus pick amongst the MAMBINO crew—we got votes for anywhere from a clean sweep to a 7 game slugfest. But the overwhelming sentiment was that a Pacers-Heat series couldn’t end in anything besides a NBA Finals beginning in South Beach.
 
But why? And how? Those are the questions that we seek to divine here on MAMBINO.
 
The Eastern Conference Finals seems to be a rare case in which the team with the best defense isn’t favored. Head coach Frank Vogel has organized the league’s best D, anchored inside-out by the massive 7’2” inside presence of Roy Hibbert and the wing excellence of Paul George and Lance Stephenson. Like the Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies, the Pacers rarely leave an open man, thanks to a minimal amount of inept one-on-one defenders, elite shot blockers and fantastic pick and roll coverage. Indiana led the league in defensive efficiency this year, including 5th in forced turnovers and 1st in opponents’ three-point makes and percentage. Even after all that, if the other team DID happen to get off a shot, they’d have to contend with the Pacers’ number one ranked rebounding. In short, if any team is going to score on Indiana, they’re going to have to hit a difficult shot, make their free throws and do all of that without second chance points.
 
So how could a team like this only win 49 games? Simple—they can’t score.

The Pacers ended up 20th in offensive efficiency, including the 25th slowest pace and 25th lowest total points scored. Out of their eight rotation players, four finished in double figures, but neither George Hill, Paul George, David West or Roy Hibbert are the type of players that can regularly go off for 30 points a night. The Pacers have four scorers who are regularly capable of being very solid, but rarely excellent. The go-to crunch time responsibilities fall primarily on forward David West, who is the team’s best one-on-one scorer, though 2012-2013 Most Improved player Paul George is slowly taking on late game shots.

Still, the old adage in the playoffs is defense wins—which of course, would mean Indiana’s second ever trip to the NBA Finals. But even as incredible as the Pacers have been on that side of the rock, Miami’s offense has been so spectacular that most writers are casting them off no matter how many games it takes.

The Heat finished with the NBA’s 9th most efficient offense, led by the indomitable LeBron James. Miami’s entire attack is predicated on LeBron or Dwyane Wade taking the ball at the top of the key or in the post, and then setting up for any number of shots. The Heat live and die on the three-pointer, and luckily for them, they were the league’s second most accurate team from distance during the regular season. The defending champs had an incredible five rotation players hit on over 40% of their shots, which were appropriately the five guys who attempted the most threes on the team.

The Pacers won two out of the three matchups with Miami this season, the Heat’s two wins featured .420 and .500 three-point shooting. For whatever reason, Wade seems to excel against the Pacers, averaging 23 ppg on 52% this season (right around his year’s average in spite of Indy’s vaunted D) and in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, averaged 33 points on 61.5% shooting in the Heat’s last three victories to seize the series. Indiana must try to slow down Wade with an excellent performance by Lance Stephenson, but if in the case that he can’t do the job, those duties might fall to George Hill, who it sure to be overmatched. Paul George will have to do his best on LeBron James, but at this point, trying to stop the Chosen One is like attempting to halt a hurricane with a closed-fist punch. The Heat also feature an excellent defense with incredibly versatile wing defenders that can also double as interior stoppers. The late season addition of Chris Andersen will be key on defending both Roy Hibbert and David West, who were damn near unstoppable at times in the just completed Knicks series. The Pacers were able to bludgeon New York as the Bockers tried time and again to get to the line, but were continually thwarted by dubious calls straight up defenders up in the paint (as my compatriot BockerKnocker tweeted Sunday, if you think that the NBA is behind a giant conspiracy to get the major markets deep into the playoffs, think again. After all, the Final Four features teams from Memphis, Indianapolis and San Antonio). The Knicks couldn’t break down the Pacers’ strategy in the last series, shooting 35% on 22 shots a game from the three-point line over six games, which helped stunt their offensive efficiency to a mere 100.4 points a game (after 111 during the season). It’s highly doubtful that they’ll be able to get that type of long-range inconsistency from Miami.

If the Pacers have any hope of avoiding complete annihilation, they’ll have to cross off the following checklist items:

1) Destroy (sorry, I meant should have capitalized that: DESTROY) Miami on the boards

The lone vulnerability of this Heat team is their relatively weak rebounding. The Pacers have a voracious appetite in regards to the glass, and that’s only gone up in the playoffs—four players are averaging over 6 rebounds, including Lance Stephenson (!), who’s around 8.1 a game. Wow.

It’s not a coincidence that the Pacers were a combined +30 on the boards in their two wins over the Heat this year. Even in their lone loss in South Beach, they still dominated the champs on the glass by 5. But the Pacers need to overwhelm the Heat with dominance in the paint and a lot more shots. A lot.

2) Not stop the three-point attack, but try to prevent 40% shooting

Indiana doesn’t need to completely break down the Heat’s three-point barrage, but they at least need to slow it down. The Pacers have an excellent trio of wing defenders that can hopefully get back on their opponents without their big men having to help too much. Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Norris Cole don’t need a whole lot of time or room to get off a shot, so preventing the attempts is just not going to happen. But they’ll need to stay home enough to stop wide-open looks and hope that the Heat go cold for a few games.

For the uninitiated, it’s not a good sign when a part of a team’s strategy is “hope for the other team to go cold”.

3) The perimeter defense must prop up a now-vulnerable interior

The Heat will be doing one of two things: a high pick and roll dragging Roy Hibbert, Ian Mahinmi and Tyler Hansbrough from the rim, as well as setting up Chris Bosh and LeBron James on the elbow. Either way, this should keep Indiana’s bigs away from the rim enough to prevent shot blocking for a hopefully penetrating Mario Chalmers, Wade or James. The Pacers must be effective enough at fighting through picks efficiently and not get lost on Miami’s deft passing. Indiana’s paint could be regularly unguarded with their bigs taken to the outside on defense—it’s paramount that George, Stephenson and Hill are excellent.

4) Hope that Dwyane Wade is injured, but guard him extremely physically regardless of his health

I hate to advocate bullying of any sort, but the Pacers have got to be extremely tough on Wade. He’s killed them for the past 13 months, and even as he’s noticeably hobbled right now, could be ripe to do it again in the ECF.

The Pacers don’t have enough offensive firepower to overcome a very good (and occasionally great) Heat defense, and I just don’t believe in anyone’s ability to come even remotely close to slowing down LeBron and in this series, Dwyane Wade. Miami is playing so well right now that it would take a bad shooting game for them to lose. This should give the Pacers one game, perhaps two if they can outrebound Indiana by 20 in another game.

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