Miami finished the regular season with far-and-away the league’s best record at 66-16, and certainly one good enough to take the No. 1 seed in the weak-as-always Eastern Conference after winning the Southwest Division. Indiana finally rose from the depths of being a low-seed and won the Central Division with a 49-32 record (Indiana only played 81 games because a game in Boston was cancelled due to the Boston Marathon bombing) to grab the No. 3 seed. As expected, Indiana was one of the league’s best defensive teams as the Pacers allowed their opposition to score just under 91 ppg—the East’s best mark. On the other hand, Miami finished as one of the league’s best offensive teams in scoring nearly 103 ppg to finish fifth among all ballclubs in that department. Overall, Miami finished with a Simple Rating System score of just over seven to finish second in the league while Indiana’s SRS ended up at just over three, the Association’s ninth-best total.
In the regular season, the teams met just three times and neither won on its home floor. Indiana won the season series, 2-1, winning twice in Miami. On Jan. 8, Indiana took a 87-77 victory home to Indianapolis, and then won again in South Beach Feb. 1, 102-89. When the Heat visited Conseco Fieldhouse, Miami scored a 14-point, 105-91 win to prevent the regular-season sweep.
Obvious match-up: LeBron James v. Paul George
This match-up doesn’t have to do so much with the two players involved themselves, as most would have spectators believe simply because these are the two best players on the court in this series. Rather, the match-up underlies what’s going to really turn the series between the two teams—but more on that later. For the fourth-time in his career, LeBron was named the league’s Most Valuable Player and it will come down to Paul George to stop him. I don’t know how many people believed this, but from my perspective George was the best bet to contain LeBron in these playoffs mirroring my thought process that Indiana was the team best-equipped to defeat Miami in a seven-game series among all Eastern Conference playoff participants. That’s to be put to the test now.
In the Pacers’ two victories, James averaged 25 ppg and shot over 50 % from the field. But in the 85 minutes he played in those two games, he was an aggregate minus-14 on the floor. His match-up played the exact same amount of minutes and finished with a plus-15 while he was on the floor. George’s numbers weren’t spectacular—he put up 22 ppg in those wins with 17 total rebounds in the two games. In the game Miami won, George scored only 10 points while James scored 13 with six rebounds and seven assists. Yet with neither player posting exorbitant stat lines, James finished at plus-23 in 36 minutes and George ended at minus-20 in 41 minutes.
So really, this match-up isn’t much of a match-up at all at least when it comes to what will guide the overall direction of the series. If anything, it says the Heat will have a better chance at winning if James takes more of a Magic Johnson-esque role and facilitates more than forcing the issue. It’s a match-up just because the names are big.
Overlooked match-up that could swing series: Basically everyone else against the other team’s everyone else
This doesn’t ring as true for the Pacers because George’s name doesn’t have as much glitter surrounding it as James’ does—especially after winning his fourth Most Valuable Player award—but the supporting casts surrounding these two players swayed the season’s series more than anything James and George really did. Take a look at the game in March that James scored just 13 points—it was his lowest statistical output of any of the three games played against Indy but he posted his only positive plus-minus rating of the three games in that one and the Heat won by 14. What was the difference? Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and Mario Chalmers combined to score 73 points. For perspective, the Pacers scored 91 total in that game. For Indiana, the key isn’t so much what the scoring from the other guys will be but the work done on the defensive end and on the glass. For example, James, Wade, and Bosh combined to score 66 points in the January game. The Pacers won that game by 10. No other Heat player scored more than five points, and four finished with zero. In that game, David West score 14 points and pulled in 11 rebounds while Roy Hibbert finished with six points and 14 rebounds. Lance Stephenson chipped in 13 of his own. In February, West led a group of four Pacers in double-digits with 30 points, while Stephenson added 15 George Hill scored 12 to complement George’s 15. Indiana won that game by 13.
Telling stat of the series: Offensive Rating
Each one of these teams finished in the Top 10 in Defensive Rating this season, with Miami at ninth with a DRtg just under 104 while Indiana led the league as the only team to post a DRtg under 100, coming in a few tenths shy. So both teams can play defense. Got it. On to Offensive Rating, the Heat finished second with a ORtg over 112. Indiana’s ORtg meanwhile ended at a few tenths over 104. So how is this going to swing the series? Basically, Indiana will do something along the lines of holding Miami to 44 percent shooting, or something thereabout, as it did in the two wins against Miami this season. Or, Miami will shoot 56 percent like it did in its one win against Indiana and win every game by double-digits. It really just depends on how each team adjusts. The biggest challenge for Indiana may very well be keeping up with the Heat, whose coach Erik Spoelstra likes to deploy a lineup of Chalmers/Wade/Battier/James/Bosh to create a unit that can get up and down the floor faster than just about any other lineup. A strength for Indiana all season was its frontcourt defense anchored by West, Hibbert, and even assisted by incessant pain-in-the-neck Tyler Hansbrough. But if the gargantuan Hibbert and the older West get run off the floor, the Pacers won’t be able to exploit their advantage on the glass as they did in January when they out-rebounded Miami 55-36. Did I mention Miami finished last in rebounds per game this season? It doesn’t look like it mattered too much, seeing as they won more than anyone else. And had that 27-game winning streak…
Prediction: Miami in 7