Sunday, May 18, 2014

Eastern Conference Finals Preview: (1) Indiana Pacers vs. (2) Miami Heat

Dwyane Wade (left) and LeBron James (right) are looking for a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

By The Numbers:

56-26 (35-6 Home; 21-20 Road)
PPG: 96.7 (24th); PPG Allowed: 92.4 (2nd)
+4.3 Average Scoring Margin (7th)
Off Rating: 101.4 (22nd); Def Rating: 96.8 (1st)
+4.6 Net Efficiency Rating (7th)

54-28 (32-9 Home; 22-19 Road)
PPG: 102.2 (12th); PPG Allowed: 97.4 (5th)
+4.8 Average Scoring Margin (T-4th)
Off Rating: 109.0 (2nd); Def Rating: 102.9 (11th)
+6.1 Net Efficiency Rating (4th)

Season Series: Tied 2-2
Indiana 90, Miami 84 (December 10)
Miami 97, Indiana 94 (December 18)
Indiana 84, Miami 83 (March 26)
Miami 98, Indiana 86 (April 11)

Players To Watch

LeBron James

Stop the presses. LeBron is important to watch.

Most of the reasons are pretty obvious. We know that Chris Bosh will do his part to try to pull Roy Hibbert away from the basket. We know that Dwyane Wade has bad knees and he's likely to have an up-and-down series against a good defense. But the brunt of the responsibility (as usual) falls on LeBron's shoulders. Part of the reason that Miami has made such quick work of Charlotte and then Brooklyn in this postseason is because of how locked in LeBron has been, especially as a scorer. He's averaging 27.1 points per 36 minutes, highest since his incredible 2009 run with Cleveland. He's averaging 9.8 free throw attempts per game, also highest since 2009. He's shooting 56 percent from the floor, by far a career postseason high, and he's converting over 80 percent of his free throws, also the highest of his postseason career. In history, among players who have used over 30 percent of their teams possessions in a single postseason, LeBron has the highest true shooting percentage ever.

What will be interesting to watch for will be how his assist numbers change against Indiana. He's averaging just 4.2 assists per 36 minutes, by far the lowest it's been in any postseason (and even more substantially lower than it's ever been in the regular season), but I expect it will need to bounce back - I don't think he can be as effective a scorer against Indiana as he was against Charlotte and Brooklyn. He'll still be able to score, and he'll likely score a lot, but he'll probably see a dip in efficiency, and even with Indiana's struggles, you can't expect to beat them with just one scorer. Miami's shooters have been a bit off - in a bizarre twist, James Jones, Norris Cole, and Chris Bosh are the only Miami players making over 40 percent of their threes (James Jones shooting well isn't that bizarre - the bizarre part is that he's playing in the first place, although it's explained by the fact that Ray Allen and Shane Battier aren't shooting well). LeBron will need to find his shooters in this series.

Paul George

For all the talk about how poorly Indiana has played as a team (Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson, and George Hill have seemed to bear the brunt of the punishment), Paul George has actually been kind of great. He averaged 24 and 11 against Atlanta and made over 40 percent on his nearly seven three-point attempts per game. He cooled off substantially against Washington (under 20 points and sub-40 percent shooting from the floor in four of the six games), but had a huge 39-point, 12-rebound performance in the pivotal Game 4 to put Indiana up 3-1, and did make an astonishing 13 of 24 threes in Games 3 through 6.

Perhaps even more important, is that in both series he's found himself taking on the most important defensive assignment. He floated from Kyle Korver to Jeff Teague to Paul Millsap against Atlanta, from Trevor Ariza to John Wall to Bradley Beal against Washington. Against Miami, he'll be seeing pretty much just LeBron (unless you think Norris Cole will go nova - personally, I'm dubious). Last year, LeBron had noticeably better numbers in the Eastern Finals against the Pacers than he did in the Finals against the Spurs or in Round 2 against the Bulls (technically, his best series was in Round 1 against the Bucks but that almost doesn't even count), but the one thing to note is that his assist numbers were the lowest of any round of the playoffs. If George can bait him into being a scorer instead of a creator, Indiana has a chance.

The Case For Indiana

They started the playoffs 2-3, but 6-2 since. They were down 30 halfway through the 3rd quarter against Atlanta in Game 5, but +52 in the ~400 minutes since (+6.2 per 48 minutes). They took a better Miami team to seven games last year, and only lost because Miami had home-court advantage in Game 7. This year, Indiana has home-court advantage. Miami is trying to make the Finals for the fourth straight year, no team has done that since the Magic/Kareem Lakers.

We may have just over-reacted to Round 1 against Atlanta because of how many threes the Hawks took. When you shoot 32 threes in 48 minutes, sometimes a few of them go in. And increasing the variance that much makes it hard to have consistent results, which is a big reason that series went seven games. Indiana had a much easier time against Washington (an embarrassing Game 5 notwithstanding), and seemed to have found their sea legs. They seem to play up (or down) to the level of their competition, so I expect they'll be more locked-in against Miami than they were in Round 1.

Best-Case Scenario: Paul George plays like he did in Round 1. Roy Hibbert plays like he did in Round 2. LeBron James plays like he did in 2011. Dwyane Wade plays like he did in Rounds 1 and 2 last year. Miami's shooters still can't shoot. James Jones can play because Stephenson and George abuse him off the dribble. Hibbert's size deters Miami from driving. In a stunner, Pacers win in 5.

The Case For Miami

They've been the better team over the last three months. They're the two-time defending champions. They've beat this Indiana team in each of the last two postseasons. They have the best player in the world. Dwyane Wade is rested and healthy. LeBron is playing as well as he's ever played. They're better.

Best-Case Scenario: Nobody over-reacted. We were all right the first time - this Indiana team is falling apart at the seams. They haven't played a defense as good as Miami's so far in the playoffs, and their offense is even more inept. Hibbert plays like he did in Round 1. Paul George plays like he did in Round 2. LeBron plays like he did in 2013. Dwyane Wade plays like he did in 2006. Heat sweep in a laugher.

The Pick

Miami in 6.

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