I spent the regular season watching the Pacers and asking two questions:
1. Will this team ever score efficiently enough to be a real threat to the league’s best teams?
2. When is Darren Collison going to make a leap?
The second question basically amounted to: Why doesn’t Collison look more like Tony Parker on the pick-and-roll? Why is he always pulling up for long jump shots? Why can’t he see the passing lane open for just a beat? Or: Why doesn’t he keep his dribble alive a bit longer to create passing lanes that don’t otherwise exist?
But these were the wrong questions, and not just because the Pacers replaced Collison in the starting lineup with a less traditional point guard in George Hill and got even better. Indiana could use an ace point guard — any team could — but it doesn’t really need one, because it’s built to create offense in a different way. The Pacers are not all that different from the Lakers, both the Phil Jackson and Mike Brown versions, in that they use their big men instead of their point guards to get into the teeth of the defense and create shots.
Among playoff teams, only the behemoth Lakers devoted a higher percentage of their possessions to post-up plays than the Pacers, per Synergy Sports. Roy Hibbert will have a huge height advantage over every Miami big man in this series, and how he responds to the quickness of Miami’s bigs and help defenders will be a key factor in how this series goes.
Again, one way to penetrate a defense is simply to toss the ball to a tall person close to the hoop. But over the last 25 games or so, the Pacers have gotten very good at creating penetration through a second method. And with that in mind, I present the player who gives Indiana the best shot at giving Miami an honest run: David West, and his passing skills.
West has been slipping screens for nearly a decade in the NBA, which is a fancy hoops guru way of saying that when West sets a screen in a pick-and-roll, he cuts straight toward the basket almost before he actually sets the pick. He is not interested in lingering there or nailing an opposing point guard with a cement wall pick. He wants to get in the way for a second and then leave, hoping to catch the ball in an open space somewhere just below the foul line and to the left of the paint. This is penetration via the pass.
As Indiana’s starting point guard, Hill is the one running those pick-and-rolls and throwing that initial pass to West. And it is in that moment, with West holding the ball in open space, where Indiana can give itself a chance against Miami. The Heat’s defense is built on speed and aggression. They love to have the big man involved in pick-and-rolls jump out hard on the opposing guard — Hill in this scenario — confident one of their ultra-athletic wing players can crash down on the big man rolling to the hoop (West) if need be.
That creates the briefest chance: three Miami players guarding two opponents, with one skilled big man (Hibbert) and two shooters (Danny Granger and Paul George, or Leandro Barbosa) surrounding the central Hill/West action. And this is where Hill, that non-traditional point guard, is weirdly a better fit for this Indiana offense than Collison. He’s at least two inches taller than Collison, making it a bit easier to throw those initial entry passes to West over the top. That height, plus some experience as a combo guard rather than a pure point guard, also makes Hill a more natural spot-up shooter against defenders running out at him.
And that’s the thing: Once West has the ball inside, every Indiana guard and forward essentially becomes a spot-up shooter, whether they are in the corners or on the wing. They can all shoot, pass or drive by a scrambling defender, and late in the Pacers’ season — and against Orlando in the first round — the Pacers did serious damage having West pass out to one spot-up shooter and swinging the ball from there.
Miami, with two athletic freaks on the wing, will make this much harder than the Magic ever could. But this kind of passing/shooting attack, heavy on ball movement inside-out and from side to side, has always been the best way to beat Miami’s helter-skelter defense. The Heat are better at playing this way than anyone, though. Where one crisp pass might do against a normal team, the Heat’s defense requires two or even three precise passes, all made accurately and without delay, before it finally yields an open look or usable driving lane. And there is always the chance Miami adjusts mid-stream, easing their traps so as to remove the need for frantic rotations.
But if Miami stays true to itself, can Indiana’s offense function well enough to win? The evidence suggests the Pacers are better equipped now, with Hill starting and Barbosa in tow, than they were a few months ago. After sporting a mediocre offense for the first half of the season, the Pacers in their last 20 games scored 107.5 points per 100 possessions — a mark that would have ranked 2nd in the league overall, behind only the Spurs. Indiana actually finished a hair above Miami in the final points per possession rankings, and it was one of just five teams to finish in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession. (The other four: Chicago, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Miami, with the Spurs and Thunder barely squeaking in, virtually tied for 10th in the points allowed category.)
How Indiana did that is even more encouraging. It started the year taking about 15 three-pointers per game and finished attempting about 18 per game — and hitting them at a rate significantly above the league average. It assisted on a higher percentage of its baskets, including three-pointers, as the season went on. It did all of this without sacrificing free throws or offensive rebounds, still its bread and butter.
Swapping Hill for Collison took a very good starting lineup to another level. The Pacers’ first starting line-up — Collison/George/Granger/West/Hibbert — scored about 107 points per 100 possessions and gave up just 97, making it one of the most productive starting units the league. With Hill in Collison’s place, that group has scored 108 points per 100 possessions and allowed just 94, taking it from “very productive” to “off the charts productive.” They don’t force as many turnovers, but the combined length is stifling on defense, and the offense has just hummed.
Unfortunately, these numbers also point at Indiana’s biggest weakness: It has a very productive top seven, but five of those seven are guards or wings. The two primary back-up bigs, Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Amundson, just haven’t cut it this season. They bring frenetic energy and have their moments on both ends of the floor, but Amundson has essentially one offensive skill (rebounding), Hansbrough barely cracked 40 percent from the floor this season and both can be exposed defensively against the wrong sort of opponents.
This is doubly bad for Indiana, since Hibbert is basically a 30 minutes per game player and West is almost 32, coming off knee surgery. The Pacers need consistent play from their back-up bigs to beat the very best teams four times in seven tries, and they haven’t gotten it.
Of course, that brings us to the biggest wild card of the entire series: Miami has exactly one big man (Chris Bosh) who has produced consistently on both ends of the floor. Against a depleted New York team, the Heat went small, with LeBron James or even Mike Milller/Shane Battier as the nominal power forward, every chance they got. Will they do the same against the bulky Pacers’ front line, confident James can battle West or Hibbert in the post and destroy the Pacers on the other end with his quickness? Hibbert is great help defender when he can rove, but he won’t be able to rove as much if Bosh is the only big man on the court, and he has trouble contesting shots outside the paint–where Bosh thrives.
And how will Indiana respond? The Pacers’ size is a huge part of the team’s core identity; they barely went without two of their four big men on the floor at all this season, and in four games against Miami, they did so four only 53 seconds, even though Miami went “small” for nearly 21 combined minutes over those four games (and was +21 in those minutes, per these game flow charts). Those 21 minutes actually don’t constitute much “small-ball” for Miami, and the Heat generally had a big man other than Bosh (i.e., Joel Anthony) on the floor to combat Hibbert.
Barbosa was only available for one of those four games, and his presence gives Indiana another quality wing–and the ability to shift Granger to the power forward spot, where he used to moonlight a few minutes here and there for different Indiana teams. George, at nearly 6-10, might be big enough to pull the same trick. Going this route could mean removing half of the potent West/Hibbert duo, unless the Pacers manage to use small line-ups as a way to both rest one of those two and limit the Amundson/Hansbrough minutes–i.e. if the Pacers go small when they’d normally have one or both of Amundson and Hansbrough on the floor.
It’s a fascinating little wrinkle in a series that could be much more competitive than people expect.