Let’s return to June 3rd. The Eastern Conference Finals are tied at 3-3 and headed to the all-important 7th game. Somehow, against seemingly all odds, it appears as if the Indiana Pacers could knock off the Miami Heat. The Miami Heat, don’t get me wrong, are an unbelievably good basketball team. However, they were also rated about as highly as any team in recent memory, perhaps since the Lakers more than 10 years ago, perhaps longer. The level of praise for this team was so high that they were actually favoured over the field to win the title this year. It was considered more likely, heading into the playoffs, that Miami would win the title than they would lose to anyone.
And yet it made sense. All we really needed was for Miami to be favoured over any Western opponent, since almost everybody gave them a near certain chance of winning the East. The Knicks made a strong push towards the end of the season but it seemed clear (to me at least) that they weren’t built for the playoffs. They just don’t present enough matchup problems, and Mike Woodson hasn’t shown in his career that he makes good adjustments during series. Indiana looked like a pseudo-threat to Miami for most of the season but they struggled down the stretch and made a lot of people dismiss them (they went too far though, I thought they were still easily better than NY). Chicago/Brooklyn could both maybe beat up Miami a bit but they weren’t going to win a series, Boston/Atlanta had no chance, and the only question with Milwaukee was how bad of a sweep would it be.
So it all made sense. The East felt like a foregone conclusion, a mildly interesting spectacle that, while it provided some entertainment, ultimately was intended to warm Miami up for the finals. Once Westbrook’s injury forced OKC out of true contention it felt like we could pencil Miami in for a title. The discussion turned from “Will they win?” to “How easily will they win?” We no longer merely expected them to prevail, we expected them to run ragged over this injury depleted playoff field where there wasn’t a challenger left in site.
I disagreed with this sentiment, but not out of respect for the Pacers. While I thought the Pacers were undoubtedly the East’s second best team I couldn’t see them truly giving Miami a run. I simply had enough respect for the Spurs (and most notably Popovich) to give them a challenge.
I didn’t expect this at all. I expected Indiana to win a game or two, but definitely not 3, and not in this way. What do I mean? I never expected Indiana to be the one dictating how the series was going to be played. They tried to stop Miami’s fast break and turn it into a half court grind-it-out series where all the advantages were theirs. And they did it. They took away the open court. They slowed it down and pounded Miami on the glass. They used their absurdly good half-court defence to take away Miami’s penetration (Hibbert and George have been getting a ton of credit for this, especially Hibbert, but it was an entire team effort) and 3 point shooting. Battier and Ray Allen were non-factors, making Battier appear so useless that he didn’t get a minute of game time in the game 7 blowout. They made the game physical and dared the refs to call fouls (resulting in the near-unwatchable game 4). Indiana gave themselves every advantage except for sheer talent. And I want to address the talent aspect.
People have been gushing over Indiana’s players the past couple weeks. Roy Hibbert, the dominant rim protector who can’t be moved from the paint and scores at will. David West, the terrific all-around player. Paul George, our next true two-way superstar. Lance Stephenson, fast break menace and defensive stalwart. George Hill, the level headed runner of the offence.
Looking at it with those rose-coloured glasses does paint a pretty good picture of Indiana’s starters, though I don’t think there’s enough irrational optimism in the world to say anything good about their bench.
But it’s just not the true picture.
Hibbert, while an unbelievable rim protector, can’t chase Bosh away from the basket and he remains a rather opportunistic scorer. He can only score consistently when an opposing defensive lapse allows him to get deep position or, even more ideally, an offensive rebound. He made a few jump shots in this series and his free throw shooting is a welcome change from the usual line struggles of a rim protector, but he just isn’t a dominant offensive center yet. Go back and watch the first two rounds against quality interior defenders and you’ll see why.
Paul George is not a two way superstar yet, I really don’t know who people are watching. He is totally, completely there on the defensive end. Offensively, he has trouble handling the ball, he routinely makes ill-advised turnovers (4.6 per game is way too many when you don’t actually handle the ball that much), his passing instincts are far from fully developed and he is a capable but not great shooter. They spent most of this year trying to develop him, and it has been a success, but their efforts have caused a spike in his raw numbers that have fooled people into thinking he’s an offensive stud when he really isn’t. His PER for the season and playoffs was 16.8 (league average is 15). He had a few great offensive games vs. Miami since Miami didn’t actually focus on stopping him at all. He was guarded, rather effectively I might add, by Ray Allen, and yet we saw Ray Allen struggle mightily against the terribly raw Lance Stephenson. Lebron saw very little time on George (though I did notice him there more in game 7), and while Wade guarded George as his primary assignment it clearly was not the usual Dwyane Wade we were seeing. George had 3 very strong offensive games, most notably game 6, but for the playoffs he shot quite poorly and he never really took over games offensively excluding the overtime of game 1. Pacers fans should be very happy about his progress, but he isn’t even close to elite on that end yet.
Stephenson is an interesting player but is completely hit or miss offensively and his temper can hurt him on defence at times too. As for Hill, I agree that he’s the level headed runner of the offence, but let’s stop pretending that that is some amazing skill set. He’s a good player but that’s it.
I know this seems like Pacer bashing but I promise it’s not. In fact it’s the opposite of that. To claim that the Pacers gave Miami all they could handle by matching talent with them is an insult to what they actually did. By overrating Pacer players we ignore the true takeaway from this series, something that people seem to have forgotten since the Miami big 3 formed. That teamwork and team chemistry on both ends can actually make up for any perceived gap in talent. It’s a refreshing idea that we see all the time but it took something of this nature, putting the scare into a seemingly invincible team, to make us appreciate it. Indiana’s success in this series definitely had something to do with their advantage in interior talent, but it had a lot more to do with their entire team’s amazing effort on the boards, and some pretty smart offensive plays to actually get the ball inside in favourable positions. And defensively, that starting lineup has some of the best defensive chemistry I’ve ever seen, it was a joy to behold. Indy outsmarted Miami, and it very nearly won them the series against a team that still has a big talent advantage.
And here’s where you say “talent won out so who cares?” Well my response would be that that is simply not true. The Heat were the more talented team, and the Heat won, but it wasn’t through abusing their talent advantage. When Miami truly looked like the better team in this series, which wasn’t really all that often, it was because of their teamwork and chemistry. When they won 27 straight in the regular season it was because the ball movement was sensational and their team rotations were on point. When they put together the most dominant stretch of play in the playoffs, the 3rd quarter in game 5, it was because their D was so in sync that Indiana couldn’t garner any advantage, and because offensively Miami players started to move properly to spots that gave Bron good passing angles. When they started to run away in game 7 it was by picking apart the Pacers bench lineup, which sorely lacks the defensive chemistry of their starters. Sure Miami had Lebron, and in game 7 they got a glimpse of the real Wade too, but what took Miami from very good to great was their chemistry, and it absolutely took prolonged moments of greatness to beat this Pacer team.