The Indiana Pacers have done what they needed to do to raise interest in their Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Miami Heat. After pushing the Heat literally to the last second in a Game 1 overtime loss, Indiana stepped up and won Game 2 last night, evening the series as it heads back to the Midwest. Since this is the more compelling of the two conference finals thus far, an overview of Pacers-Heat will lead up this morning’s NBA commentary.
Each game—Miami’s 103-102 win to start the series, and Indiana’s 97-93 triumph last night to square it is filled with storylines and angles, none of which point in a clear direction. Since the question most people have is “Can Indiana really win this thing?”, we’ll start by summarizing the positive developments the Pacers can point to.
*The frontline is active and involved—unlike last year’s conference semifinal loss to Miami, where Indiana got passive and settled for perimeter jumpers, the Pacers are getting the ball to the paint. Roy Hibbert scored 48 points in the two games at South Beach, David West had a 26-point showing in Game 1 and played well in Game 2. And small forward Paul George has given the team a mix of scoring off the dribble and with the jumper, producing 49 points in the two games combined. George also hit a miracle three-point shot to force overtime in Game 1.
*Indiana is getting to the foul line. They’ve won the free-throw scoring battle both times, 24-16 in the opener and 26-18 in Game 2. Some of this is because Miami is mediocre at the foul line to date, but in either case, the Pacers are getting more attempts. This is a direct byproduct of controlling the interior. It also suggests that, thus far anyway, they’re getting some fair officiating. Although given the NBA’s history in this regard, you’ll have to color me skeptical that such would continue if Indiana really gets in position to knock the Heat out of the Finals. If you don’t believe me, ask the good people of Sacramento about such matters.
*It’s only a failed coaching gambit that’s preventing Indiana from being up 2-0. Leading by a point with a two seconds left in overtime of Game 1, Pacer coach Frank Vogel inexplicably kept Hibbert—only one of the league’s best shotblockers—off the floor when Miami inbounded for the final possession. LeBron James’ eyes lit up and he took it to the hole for an uncontested layup. I suppose Miami might have hit a perimeter jumper to win it had Hibbert been in the lineup, but the odds of pulling that off are less than 50 percent.
But before we get carried away with the underdog, there’s some good things Miami can point to…
*While the Heat have been outrebounded in both games, it’s been by manageable margins. They lost the battle 43-38 in Game 1 and 39-32 in Game 2. Given that Miami is attempting to win this series on the perimeter while Indiana’s trying to dominate down low, that’s good enough on the glass. The bigger problem is that Ray Allen and Shane Battier are just cold from three-point range. But they’re hanging in there with Indiana’s big men.
*The backcourt defense in Game 1 was stifling, as George Hill and Lance Stephenson did nothing. And it was still pretty good in Game 2. Even though Hill had a good game for Indiana, Stephenson was again unproductive. Defensive dominance in the backcourt is a prerequisite for a Miami victory and the early signs here are positive.
*LeBron is still LeBron. He had a couple big turnovers last night that get the media attention, but he dropped a 30/10/10 in Game 1 and scored 36 in Game 2. And this isn’t a Carmelo Anthony kind of 30-point night, where LeBron’s taking 35 shots to do it. He continues to shoot efficiently from the floor and get his teammates involved. Again, the bigger problem is that his three-point shooters—Allen and Battier are not hitting their shots and the result was that LeBron’s assist numbers plummeted in Game 2’s loss.
*The argument I made above—that Indiana could be up 2-0—can be refuted by noting that Miami would have come out extra intense for Game 2 had they lost the opener and that it’s highly unlikely the Pacers shoot 50 percent from the floor against a desperate team.
So where’s it all going from here? At the start of the series I picked Miami in five games, and presumed that Indiana would win one of the middle games at home. But I also said that if Indiana stayed focused and kept going inside that this series was very close to even, and you can even argue the Pacers are better. TNT’s Kenny Smith has accurately noted that it’s tough to win multiple championships when you are not a good rebounding team. Miami is not.
Hence, we can’t assume that the Heat can just flip a switch. In reality, it’s the Pacers switch we have to watch. If they keep going down low and working their game plan they can defend their home floor and put Miami on the brink. If they revert to last year’s form and shoot 25 treys each of the next two games, Miami can go home up 3-1. I’ll split the difference with the safe pick and say Indiana gets one win at home and just adjust my pre-series pick to say Miami in six.
This was the more interesting series when it began, has turned into the less compelling one, but there’s still opportunity for Memphis to turn it around. San Antonio came out blazing in Game 1, built a big early lead and won 105-83. The Spurs continued to be in command for three quarters of Game 2. It was then Memphis made a lineup change, locked down on the defensive end and forced overtime before finally coming up short, 93-89.
I’m inclined to write off Game 1 as an anomaly. The Spurs got a combined 8-of-11 three-point shooting from Kawhi Leonard and Matt Bonner. On the Memphis side, Zach Randolph only scored two points. Give great credit to the Spurs—it speaks well to their preparedness that they had a plan for Randolph, and to the depth. But giving credit is different from saying it’s likely to happen again. None of those developments are.
Memphis got its rebounding mojo back in Game 2, with Randolph and Pau Gasol leading a team-wide 60-46 advantage on the glass. This is the type of advantage the Grizzlies need to sustain—it’s also where the Pacers need to be in their series. Memphis further did a good job on Tony Parker, forcing him into a 6-for-20 shooting night.
But Parker did what veterans do and that’s find a way to contribute when his shot wasn’t falling. He handed out 18 assists and the balanced Spurs lineup was able to prevail. Their underrated defense held Memphis to 34 percent shooting in the process.
I liked the Spurs to win a long series win this started. I’m obviously not changing my mind on San Antonio, but nor am I changing my mind about the long series. Memphis gave guard Jerryd Bayless some extra minutes in Game 2 and got 18 points from him. If he can replace the unproductive Tony Allen in the lineup and join with point guard Mike Conley, then Memphis will have the backcourt support that it’s frontline needs. I expect some good games this weekend, but also feel like the Grizzlies will win both and turn this back into a series again.
San Antonio-Memphis resumes tonight at 9 PM ET on ESPN. Sunday night it’s Miami-Indiana with an 8:30 PM ET tip on TNT. TheSportsNotebook’s NBA commentary will return Monday morning with updated overviews on both series after their Game 3s.