Heat Check: Miami Better Be Ready for a Tough Series Against The Pacers
After cruising through the first round of the playoffs like a number one seed should, the Heat found themselves facing the tough minded Chicago Bulls in the second round.
The Bulls knew the didn’t have the talent to keep up with the Heat going into the series, so they did what under-talented teams do, they tried to turn the game into a rugby match instead of a skills competition. And after a game one win, it looked like Chicago was going to be able to successfully muck up the games and make the Heat work for their conference finals bid.
But, in the end, the Bulls just weren’t healthy enough to even do that. The team they ended the series with was a shell of itself. Ravaged by injury, sickness and fatigue, Tom Thibodeau's gang didn't have the fuel in the tank to hang on for six or more games with the much more talented Heat team. But Thidodeau, because he may be the best coach in the game right now, was on to something.
The teams that have given the Heat the hardest time during the last two years (don't count their first year together, it always takes teams at least one year to really figure out who they are), and Lebron James in general, have been the ones who have had the willingness and the bodies to play a physical game with James and Co.
In fact, it was Thibodeau's old team, the Celtics, who have given the Heat their toughest series in the last two years, forcing Miami to win games 6 and 7 to move on to the Finals. The Celtics, who developed their defense first identity when Thibodeau was their assistant coach and defacto defensive coordinator, were able to send enough high caliber defensive bodies at James and Wade to wear them down and make them work for their series win.
The Bulls made the Heat work for their win a little, but in the end once the Bulls won games two and three Chicago knew they couldn't hang, and the series was quickly over. They just didn’t have enough talent to extend the series to six or seven. But the team that has the talent and the mindset to play a tough, defense first style against the Heat? Yup, that's right, their next opponent, the Indiana Pacers.
The Pacers, basically a better version of the this year's Bulls, gave the Bulls their second biggest scare of the playoffs last year, taking a two games to one lead before Miami (and really, Lebron James) took their game to another level and ripped off three straight wins to take the series in six.
But this year the Pacers come into the series with one of the best defenses in the league, finishing first in opponent's field goal percentage (42%) and second in opponent's points scored (90.7) this season. They're athletic on the perimeter, well coached, and have bigs who value defense and protecting the rim.
And it's those bigs that make all the difference. David West is a tough, physical, old school power forward who rotates well and will be able to match James' strength when he gets to the lane. And, if he or Wade does get to the rim, the Pacers have one of the best shot blockers in the game today, and one of the last remaining old school centers in Roy Hibbert.
Indiana also finished first in the league in rebounding, which will make it hard to Miami to counter their traditional style of play by going small.
The Heat love to go small, in fact they've master the new school lineup of putting shooters around one or two playmakers and not worrying about centers and power forwards who can rebound or block shots. But that small lineup will not be able to keep the Pacers off the offensive glass, and that should keep them in the series.
But the physical style of play alone won't be enough for the Pacers to actually win the title. While they have one of the best five man starting lineups in the league, their bench leaves much to be desired. If the Heat either get them in foul trouble (which they're really good at and effectively did to the Bulls) or simply wear down the starters by playing at a fast pace, they'll be able to force the Pacers to play their bench more minutes than they want, and those will be the times that the Heat take control of the games.
In the end the Heat still have the advantage over any other team in the league, because that small lineup will be able to run the Pacers out of the building, allowing the Heat to score in transition and secondary transition (at which their the best in the league), and get their points before Indy can set up their defense.
The Heat will still win the series, and the championship this year, but the Pacers tough, defense first style of play, will make this a better series than most think.
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